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Prescription Drugs, Not Illegal Ones, Killed Heath Ledger

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By Scott Thill
February 14, 2008

The media pounced on his admitted love of weed and coke but did little to investigate the prescription drugs that did him in.

"This would have never happened with weed."

I made that declaration for back in May 2007, when Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma pled guilty to criminal charges of misleading customers about the lethality of their product, promising to pay $600-plus million and be real good people going forward. But with the accidental overdose of Heath Ledger, the first sentence of this article is proving to be a tag line with serious staying power.

Last year was the latest in a series of banner years for Oxycontin, which kicked heroin and cocaine to the metaphorical curb to become one of the most popularly abused substances of the 21st century. Of course, it has been joined by painkillers like Vicodin, sleeping pills like Restoril, anti-anxiety poppers like Valium and Xanax, and even antihistamines like Unisom, all of which were found in Ledger's system during his autopsy. The official verdict, sent in written form by medical examiner spokeswoman Ellen Borakove, avoided marketing buzzwords in favor of designations more scientific, which is to say obscure: "Mr. Heath Ledger died as the result of acute intoxication by the combined effects of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine. We have concluded that the manner of death is accident, resulting from the abuse of prescription medications."

What's in a name, you ask? Oblivion. Wait until you hear the numbers.

According to a recent Associated Press analysis of Drug Enforcement Administration stats, retail access to these "accidental" killers has skyrocketed 88 percent since 1997, and you don't even need to ask about prescriptions, because doctors are dishing them out like mints. Consequently, a collaborative study from the University of Michigan and the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that teenage abuse of Oxycrack has risen 26 percent since 2002, while overall prescription drug abuse has tripled among teens since 1992. For those who know their immortal hip-hop well, that was the year N.W.A. soundtracker and rapper Dr. Dre scored crossover platinum with The Chronic, a highly influential album dedicated to the love of cannabis that made Snoop Dogg a superstar in his own right. Neither has yet to die of weed.

The irony is sweet and sour. And while I'm not sure if Heath Ledger was a fan of Dre and Snoop, he was certainly a fan of cannabis. I "used to smoke five joints a day for 20 years," he confessed on a hidden camera video that Entertainment Tonight bought and planned to air, but then reportedly pulled "out of respect" for Ledger's family. In the video, Ledger allegedly flirts with coke and openly admits to the problem it will cause Michelle Williams, who according to the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid New York Post had to lay down the law with the Brokeback Mountain and Batman star over his abuse of not just those drugs but heroin as well. Once the video was yanked, his family and business associates sighed with deep thanks and quickly condemned the former decision to air it as "shameful exploitation of the lowest kind."

But was it? Sure, airing footage of Ledger at a Hollywood coke party while he rhapsodizes about how much cannabis he used to smoke may not have been the most sensitive way for Entertainment Tonight to eulogize him. But an important point is being utterly missed: Coke, heroin and weed did not kill him. Prescription drugs did.

And while cocaine or heroin may have been able to do the trick had he kept abusing them, cannabis probably would have never been able to pull the trigger: No one in the history of medicine has ever died from an overdose of marijuana, according to evidence so far. Heath Ledger probably could have smoked 200 joints a day and not died of an overdose. He probably would have died of morbid obesity, if anything.

In other words, pop-culture feeders like Entertainment Tonight and The Insider, who also pulled their planned airing, can claim sympathy for Ledger's family all they want, but they could also claim they invented the sun. According to some reports, ET and The Insider each paid around $200,000 for the footage in the first place; when you spend money like that, you expect a return on it. And it's surely not the first time that tabloid television has had irate bystanders breathing down their neck about propriety, further diluting the sympathy proposition and leaving behind a more mundane reason: The video's gotcha thrust was torpedoed by the toxicology report.

Ledger's family was unequivocally clear in their statement on the issue, blaming not cocaine, cannabis or even heroin. Instead, they ignored the white horse and zeroed in on the white elephant in the room: "While no medications were taken in excess, we learned today the combination of doctor-prescribed drugs proved lethal for our boy … Heath's accidental death serves as a caution to the hidden dangers of combining prescription medication, even at low dosage." And given the alarming stats culled together by the AP, University of Michigan, National Institute on Drug Abuse and every other organization looking into the problem of prescription drug abuse, one would have thought that the Bush administration would have put together some kind of task force on the trend by now. (Stop laughing.) But no, it just caught on to the phenomenon around the end of January 2008, when it announced its "first major federal effort to educate parents" about Oxycrack and its ilk.

Their chosen venue? A Super Bowl ad, which undoubtedly aired somewhere between commercials hawking SUVs, fast food, beer and hard-dick pills. According to the accidentally hilarious Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Bush administration "will leverage $14 million to generate nearly $30 million in advertising" on the dangers of prescription drug abuse, including the hyperexpensive Super Bowl ad, which in itself gives Americans a better idea of how their tax dollars are spent than I don't know what. Add that together with the swollen numbers spent by the ONDCP and the Bush administration in their quixotic crusade against weed, Oxycrack's only serious competition for the nation's youth, and you have one economic shell game going nowhere. No wonder the ONDCP is now calling pot growers terrorists. They need to spend that Homeland Security money on something, for lack of a better term, material.

Because it's much easier to bust poor kids (or disabled adults) for possession or cultivation of cannabis than it is to nail rich kids rifling through their parents' medicine cabinets. As the Drug Law Blog explained, Purdue Pharma was allowed to fraudulently market Oxycrack for six years using everything from fake charts to doctors who like to push the stuff too hard, all while pulling in nearly $3 billion in a hailstorm of deaths and bad publicity. When they wanted someone to generate better publicity, they hired Rudy Guiliani and sent the wannabe president all the way to Congress to plead their case to keep Oxycrack's hope alive. Those are some high-powered connections.

And they've worked wonders, even as prescription drug abuse has reached statistical highs and, as the Ledger death has illustrated, cultural lows. If his death is remembered for anything, it will not be for tabloid retractions of his admitted love of weed and coke, but rather for the spotlight his passing has placed more firmly on the officially sanctioned pills that caused it. The world would be a better, and healthier, place for it.

Scott Thill runs the online mag His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.

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