The autopsy report released Thursday underscored the tragedy of a Minnesota superstar’s recent death. Prince Rogers Nelson not only died too young but joined the long list of music legends put in an early grave by drugs or alcohol. Among them: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson, Billie Holiday and, more recently, Amy Winehouse.
The average American may never understand the pressures that drive such gifted musicians, who seem to have it all, to drug use. But it’s easy to see how money and fame ease access to these substances. Those whose careers have soared to uncommon heights may well be at greater risk of being brought down by a common disease: chemical addiction, a condition that too often inspires condemnation rather than the compassion the victim desperately needs. For those wanting to honor Prince, reaching out to someone struggling with addiction or advocating for policies broadening treatment access would be worthy choices.
The drug that ended Prince’s life through a “self-administered” dose is called fentanyl. It is a synthetic opioid drug 100 times more potent than morphine — a property that provides powerful pain relief when other drugs fail but also carries substantial risk. That’s why it’s generally used in a medical setting, though like other opioid drugs, it is increasingly sold illegally in Minnesota and elsewhere.
Regrettably, it appears that many street users mistakenly believe that drugs available by prescription, such as fentanyl or OxyContin, are safer than illegal drugs such as heroin. The reality, as Prince’s April 21 death shows, is that prescription drugs can be just as deadly when used outside a medical setting.
The autopsy did not make not clear whether Prince, 57, had a fentanyl prescription or not. That answer is likely a focus of the ongoing law enforcement investigation into his death. If wrongdoing is found, those who enabled access to the dangerous drug should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Prince, as many observers have noted, put a famous face on opioid drugs’ tragic toll. Medical experts have rightly called the abuse of these drugs, such as OxyContin, a public health crisis. The drugs are easy to get hooked on, a sobering truth that drugmakers and doctors have been too slow to acknowledge. Those who take the drugs for legitimate reasons may also turn to heroin for a high when the prescription drug is cut off.
One grim consequence: drug overdoses have become the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., with a tragic toll of 47,055 in 2014, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Nearly 19,000 of these overdose deaths were related to prescription opioids. Another 10,574 overdose deaths were linked to heroin. The toll is shocking and a reminder that these drugs’ danger extends far beyond the rock ’n’ roll world. This spring, law enforcement sounded the alarm about fentanyl-laced heroin after three deadly overdoses in the Fargo-Moorhead area.
Action is critical at the state and federal levels to get the opioid epidemic under control without overcorrecting and denying pain relief to those who need it. Improved physician training on these drugs’ use is imperative, said Carol Falkowski, a respected Minnesota drug expert. Broadening access to addiction treatment should also be a top priority. The drugs to treat opioid and heroin addiction are highly regulated, which limits the number of providers who can prescribe them.
Minnesota took welcome steps this year to ease disposal of unused opioid medications and enhance prescription monitoring. Next year, lawmakers need to dig deeper into the treatment access concerns. At the federal level, the U.S. Senate passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016 in March. In mid-May, just a few weeks after Prince’s death, the U.S. House passed similar legislation with broad bipartisan support. The legislation will launch a national opioid-heroin awareness campaign, provide grants for community prevention and develop best practices for pain management to minimize the use of opioids.
A conference committee is finalizing the bill before sending it to President Obama. Putting the presidential signature on it is another worthy way to honor Minnesota’s much-mourned Prince.