Reports on Prince's Death Underline Our Desperate Need to Learn to Use Drugs Better

Apr 25 2016

Reports on Prince’s Death Underline Our Desperate Need to Learn to Use Drugs Better

April 25th, 2016

When a famous person dies mysteriously and prematurely these days, we are instantly led to consider their drug use as cause of death.

Prince, the multitalented musician and entertainer, who was found dead at his estate outside Minneapolis last week, is a prime candidate for such speculation. We need to withhold judgment until toxicology and other autopsy data are made public, of course. But current reports suggesting that drugs played a major role in his death, and how they did so, speak to a much wider point: Americans’ lack of skill at drug use.

It is unusual for a 57-year old person to die instantly, from no visible cause. Sometimes heart attacks act this way. But Prince didn’t appear to suffer a heart attack, he wasn’t known to suffer from heart disease, and he didn’t display such risk factors as smoking, obesity and lack of physical activity.

But the outward signs of his death are consistent—not with single-drug overdose, a rare malady—but drug poisoning, or the combined effects of various narcotic and depressant drugs. (The New York City Medical Examiner’s Office finds multiple drug use present in 97% of drug-related deaths.)

Of course, Prince was famous for his “clean” lifestyle. In addition to not smoking and not drinking, he was known as being vehemently “anti-drug,” eschewing marijuana, cocaine and other street drugs.

But his hands-off approach seemingly didn’t hold for pharmaceuticals—particularly opioids.

We are now being fed information that the emergency landing of Prince’s plane several days prior to his death was due to a narcotic “overdose” requiring an injection of a narcotic antagonist such as naloxone. TMZ has also published photos of Prince in a parking lot supposedly waiting impatiently for someone to bring him a prescription for a painkiller, Percocet.

But people don’t tend to die unintentionally from Percocet prescriptions. A new, more plausible narrative is emerging: sub rosa use by Prince of prescription opioids whose effects were compounded by other, medically prescribed painkillers.

According to the Daily Mail, “the performer’s long-time dealer—who asked to be named only as Doctor D—revealed the singer would spend up to $40,000 at a time on six-month supplies of Dilaudid pills and Fentanyl patches.”

People usually have an explanation, a need, for such drug use. According to Dr D, “Prince suffered crippling stage fright and could not get on stage and perform without the drugs—but had a phobia of doctors so could not obtain a prescription legally.”

This still does not add up to deadly drug use. We might be surprised at prominent people’s regular use of pharmaceuticals in support of both their daily lives and their public, performing selves. But few die from such use.

Added into this mix in Prince’s case was that Prince was known to be suffering from hip pain. “Dr D suggests it could have been a physician that unknowingly contributed to Prince’s death—by prescribing strong pain killers to the singer for his hip condition without knowing the extent of his secret opiate addiction.”

While the veracity of Dr D’s account remains to be seen, it has the advantage of making sense by proposing how a well-heeled individual, able to receive the best of health care, could end up overusing combinations of narcotic drugs that could kill him.

If this account ultimately holds water, it brings to the forefront several regrettable elements in the singer-songwriter-musician’s biography, and leads us to these conclusions about unhealthy and dangerous drug use:

* Being “anti-drug”—meaning anti-recreational drug use—is no guarantee that a person won’t overuse meds in dangerous and addictive ways (think Elvis, Michael Jackson and Rush Limbaugh). Indeed, this strangely ambivalent attitude towards drugs might itself be considered a specific causative risk factor in dangerous drug use and negative drug outcomes, one that hinders sensible and safe drug use.

* Prince seemingly was an isolated person. He lived alone and was only discovered dead by employees entering his estate in the morning. Having intimate human associations and others monitor one’s behavior and ongoing health can be lifesaving (think Amy Winehouse, who died alone from a combination of alcohol and benzodiazepines prescribed following rehab).

* What Prince failed to display was open acknowledgement of his drug use and awareness of best drug-using practices.

All Americans use drugs, whether legal or illegal. A mature response to this situation is to acknowledge it and seek to make drug use safer—as opposed to denying it, stigmatizing it and thereby encouraging individuals like Prince to remain secretive, uninformed and vulnerable.

Based on these early reports around Prince’s death, one might suspect that he—like many other Americans—tragically lacked needed skills and knowledge around drug use.


Stanton Peele is a columnist for The Influence. His latest book, with Ilse Thompson, is Recover!: An Empowering Program to Help You Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life.  He has been at the cutting-edge of addiction theory and practice since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has since written numerous other books and developed the online Life Process Program. His website is Peele.net. Dr. Peele has won career achievement awards from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies and the Drug Policy Alliance. He is currently working on an e-book: How to Use Drugs. You can follow him on Twitter: @speele5

  • Kris Roth

    While I’m aware that this is a huge problem in our country, I’m quite disappointed you couldn’t wait until the toxicology report was released. Jumping on the speculation train gives you much less credibility in my book, as does using TMZ as a source. You’re better than this, or at least I thought you were.

    • Stanton Peele

      We (I) felt the underlying message is crucial – independent of final toxicology, not expected for weeks. Moreover, although I don’t want to bank my life’s reputation on Dr D, and we were (I think) appropriately cautious about its validated accuracy, his narrative is sounder, more realistic and more helpful than anything else I have heard or read about Prince’s death.

  • What kills people? The ‘experts’ who insist that people died of ‘ignorance’, not intentional suicide, despite all logic and reason and evidence to the contrary. And who say that we just need to educate people better on how to use drugs more safely with(out) killing yourself. And who stand back and say nothing as the truth tellers are insulted and bullied right under their nose – or even worse – pile on.

  • Fred Celio

    Of course Peele is a noted expert, and certainly respected here for his writings and speaking on the 12 Step Cult religion and revealing their reality. However, this writing is pure speculation, and thus not journalism. It is an attempt to exploit the death of a famous person in order promote a point of view and puff up his own popularity. Why not wait for the toxicology report, if we are entitled to see it, rather than speculate with an article now. Was Prince epileptic?

    • Kris Roth

      Exactly my point. Thank you.

    • Linus Gray

      How would the toxicology report change the point of this article? Peele is simply pointing out Americans’ lack of skill at drug use and how dangerous it can be. How is that “pure speculation?” If it turns out it’s not true for Prince, so what? It is certainly true for many others.

  • Susanjones2007

    Oh please. Use them better? How about using them appropriately?

  • Maurice Dutton

    Lets just wait until the toxicology report is out. There is too much speculation about Prince death and I prefer to deal in facts and empirical evidence.

  • Maurice Dutton

    Its speculation. We could speculate that as with Andy Gibb some years ago. With Cocaine heavy usage, the body just can only take so much and repeated doses of cocaine become toxic and because of this the effects are not felt leading to larger dose and inevitably tragic consequences. Or it may be poly drug usage where stacking of different substances causes toxic effects. Or it may be psychological where as emotions come to play and he may have just said enough but its speculation ! The authorities will want to have all their cards in order as if Prince had some one shopping for him which is often the case, I would not want to be that person as they will want to hang some one. Inevitably, he is gone and if any good is to come of this it would be that all sides work out a platform for an informed education programme that saves lives. Whether the enforcers would want to get on side is up to them.

  • johnsawyer

    I wonder if Prince ever tried propranolol for his stage fright? For many people, it’s very effective.

    • Maurice Dutton

      I think you mean propaphol. Its what took Michael jackson down the medication you refer to is for high blood pressure and should not be used to try and sleep

      • Nancy

        Propranolol is a high blood pressure medication but is also frequently prescribed off label for anxiety and stage fright. I don’t think, however, that stage fright was what Prince was trying to treat.

        • Maurice Dutton

          Either way, his autopsy says he was about 112 pounds thats 50.7 kilograms which is less than my wife so he would have had no reserves for the fentanyl he self administered. His death would have been one of many.

  • Maurice Dutton

    Prince died of an Opiod (fentanyl) overdose and that is sad but to put his death into perspective here are some stats.
    About 2 million opiod abusers in the US now.
    The three most used opioids in overdoses are methadone, Hydrocodone (Vicodin) and the old favourite Oxycontin.
    Between 1999 and 2014 a whopping 165 000 deaths were recorded from opiod overdose.
    The latest stats show that in 2014 there were 14 000 deaths alone.

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