This Is the Conversation We Desperately Need to Be Having About Prince's Opiate Addiction

"Doctors are the new pushers. All of America isn't strung out on street drugs, they're strung out on prescribed drugs.”
Publish date:
May 10, 2016
addiction, opiates, stigma, celebrity deaths, Prince

It’s been almost a month since the untimely death of pop superstar Prince. He was easily one of my favorite artists and the day I learned of his passing, I couldn't stop crying. Growing up, my mother – perhaps in an attempt to come to terms with her own interracial marriage to my father – watched Purple Rain more times than I could count. And as I grew older, Prince’s songs became a soundtrack to my life. Later in 2011, when Prince kicked off a month long residency at The Forum in Los Angeles, the whole city lost its mind and everyone went into a Prince frenzy for the month of April. I purchased the best tickets my coins could cover and enjoyed a four-hour extravaganza that included an amazing performance from iconic drummer Sheila E.. Now, as I mourn the death of this brilliant musician who made such an impact on my life and the lives of others, I find myself angry at the show of dysfunction surrounding drug addiction in this country.

Though Prince's official cause of death is pending toxicology reports, it is almost certain that he died from an opioid medication overdose. Unfortunately, what has followed can only be described as a witch hunt. Last week, The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Drug Enforcement Agency announced that they will join an investigation led by the Carver County Sheriff’s Office to determine what, if any, role his opioid medication played in his death. Then there is the possibility that Andrew Kornfeld, who works as a peer mentor at his father’s addiction center Recovery Without Walls, could face criminal prosecution for possession of a controlled substance because he carried a starter dose of Suboxone (the medication is used to ease a patient’s opioid withdrawals) from California to Minnesota. This charges may be filed despite the fact that he flew to Prince’s home to encourage him into a drug treatment program.

I understand that death brings up uncomfortable emotions. As an international superstar, Prince was beloved by many who are looking for some form of justice. I recently overheard a conversation in which a woman declared, “Prince is dead, and someone has to pay.” However, it is exactly this type of punitive response that has created the nation’s disastrous drug crisis. In fact, America’s drug issues have gotten worse since the Nixon Administration launched both the war on drugs and the DEA in the early 1970s. Almost 40 years later, the ramifications of this failed war are still evident and have left a trail of racial injustice, destruction of families, overcrowded prisons, and unfunded drug treatment programs.

While the national response to the "war on drugs" has included local, state, and federal agencies devoting more resources to cracking down on illegal drug trafficking, pharmaceutical companies have continued to operate almost unchecked. In fact, in the 1990s, marketing efforts to healthcare providers by pharmaceutical companies increased. From the year 2000 to 2009, the abuse and misuse of opioid products such as OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, and Lortab skyrocketed.

In a recent interview about Prince’s death, rocker Steven Tyler concluded, "Doctors are the new pushers. All of America isn't strung out on street drugs, they're strung out on prescribed drugs.”

I couldn’t agree more.

At one point while I was in college, it was so easy to get prescribed Vicodin that I had a medicine cabinet full of the opioid but was still too young to purchase alcohol. Doctors handed it out to me and many other Americans like candy, with little to no warning about the drug’s potential addictive qualities.

Unfortunately, this legalized form of opioid usage has landed the U.S. squarely in the midst of an opioid epidemic. Since 2000, the rate of drug overdose deaths increased by 137 percent, largely due to prescription pain-relievers and heroin. In 2014, a record-breaking 28,647 Americans died as a result of prescription opioids and heroin overdoses. However, no one in the FDA or the pharmaceutical industry has ever been held liable for the tens of thousands of deaths caused by this legalized drug pushing. What’s worse is that it’s almost certain now that companies like Purdue Pharma, the creators of OxyContin were aware that they misled doctors and patients about these highly addictive drugs in order to increase their profits.

Unfortunately, our country’s opioid epidemic has reached far and wide. Despite, those scary commercials from the 90s that showed a brain on drug as two sizzling sunny side up eggs – there are many, many people who contribute immensely to our society in positive ways that live double lives as functional addicts. Plain and simple, addiction has no face. It affects people of every race, income bracket, intelligence level and with varying levels of discipline or religiosity. Despite, this fact over the past few weeks I’ve had Prince fans say to me, “He couldn’t have died from an overdose – he was sooo healthy.” Or others say, “But Prince was a Jehovah’s Witness, there’s no way he would do drugs.” These types of statements are always frustrating to me and show a deep misunderstanding about addiction.

I think that it is high time (pun intended), that we get realistic about drug abuse in this country. First, we have to bring common sense and humanity back into the equation. In the case of Prince’s death that means embracing people who are on the front lines fighting the beast of addiction every day like Andrew Kornfeld – not threatening them with time in prison. People can’t be terrified to call 9-1-1 if their friend or loved one is in the midst of an overdose. It also means, treating addiction like the disease that it is, instead of a criminal activity. And lastly, providing all Americans with affordable access to mental health services so that they have other options besides self-medicating to help numb their emotional pain. I for one think that pharmaceutical companies should be legislated to create a fund that helps treat the widespread problem of prescription painkiller addiction that they created.

Unfortunately, any improvements to the current system come too late for Prince Rogers Nelson, but putting more Americans in prison won’t bring him back. In fact, history shows that it won’t even stop the nearly 30,000 other opioid addicts that will likely follow him to their untimely deaths this year. Let’s get serious about mental health and addiction treatment services. Our brothers, sisters, mothers, friends – the addicts that we love don’t have much more time.