War on Drugs

Prince's Death Being Used to Sell Painkiller Panic

Is there any way to stop the abuse of the word 'epidemic'?


Credit: Abode of Chaos / photo on flickr

Was Prince addicted to painkillers, and is that what killed him? That's one of the latest issues surrounding Prince's sudden and surprising death (along with his failure to have a will). TMZ has tracked down a lot of circumstantial evidence for the possibility, but we probably won't know Prince's actual cause of death for a few more weeks.

The lack of a stated cause of death has not stopped a new host of opioid abuse panic stories from popping up in the wake. The Star Tribune in Minneapolis (where Prince lived) declared his death (if prescription related) highlighted an "epidemic" in the state:

State records show 336 deaths last year linked to excessive or abusive use of prescription opioids, such as oxycodone, or illicit opioids, such as heroin. That is six times higher than the opioid-related deaths in 2000, and an increase from 313 deaths in 2014.

Two-thirds of the deaths involved legal painkillers or the addiction treatment methadone, which can help wean drug abusers off opioids but is addictive itself.

I would point out that the population of the entire state of Minnesota is close to 5.5 million. A check through the most recent mortality stats for the state (2013) show about 41,000 deaths of citizens that year. About twice as many Minnesota citizens died of the flu or pneumonia than opioids. More than 1,000 people died from falls. Nearly 700 people committed suicide.

It is utterly absurd to call this death rate an "epidemic," but that's where we are, and there are significant real world consequences for people who are in pain trying to get treatment in a world where the government is quick to call them addicts. Any pharmacist who thinks he or she may have served Prince better lawyer up now. Some prosecutor out there is undoubtedly going to want to make a name for himself or herself here (and to make an example out of somebody else).

In addition, we're seeing the war on painkillers interfering with efforts to reform mandatory minimum sentencing. The latest version of the Senate's criminal justice reform bill that is intended to lower mandatory minimum sentencing actually adds a new mandatory minimum sentence for crimes involving the drug fentanyl, a prescription painkiller with a potential for addiction and abuse. So even while criminal justice activists are trying to scale back the devastating effects of the war on drugs, politicians are still looking for new ways to put more people in prison.

Read more from reason on opioids here.