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Dopesick: 20 Celebrity Victims of America's Opioid Epidemic

4 out of 5 people who get hooked on opioids start with a prescription from their doctors.

4 out of 5 people who get hooked on opioids start with a prescription from their doctors.

Dopesick and the Tragic Tale of OxyContin

Anyone who binge-watched the gripping and fast-moving eight part limited series, Dopesick, may be tempted to describe it as “addicting” but surely would think twice given its subject matter: America’s deadly and distressing opioid epidemic. It tells the tale of a new wonder drug developed by Purdue Pharma called OxyContin, which the company correctly perceived as a potential goldmine. It decided in 1996, therefore, to ruthlessly market the painkiller by employing an army of young, attractive, and ambitious sales representatives who were spurred on by soaring salaries and big bonuses.

What are opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs found in the opium poppy plant. They include prescription medications (painkillers) such as OxyContin and Vicodin and illegal drugs such as heroin. Doctors typically prescribe them for moderate to severe pain. Some patients become addicted to them. Some develop a high tolerance for them, needing larger doses to alleviate their pain. Some experience a high while using them, making them feel euphoric and desperately wanting more.

The Incestuous Relationship Between Doctors and Pharmaceutical Reps

Those of us who trust, like, and admire our personal doctors are made to see things in a new, harsher light. Dopesick exposes the incestuous relationship between our kindly docs and the drug companies who seek huge profits. The hard-driving pharmaceutical reps at Purdue had only one mission: convincing doctors to prescribe OxyContin for their patients.

They did this by wining and dining them, seducing them with free trips to pain management conferences at luxurious resorts, and inundating them with gifts and Purdue Pharma swag. They touted OxyContin by telling doctors about its special label created by the FDA that highlighted its effectiveness as a non-addictive opioid. Again and again, they told doctors that the risk of addiction with OxyContin was less than one percent.

In reality, though, the percentage of those becoming addicted was much higher. This was especially true when the drug got used in ways other than how it was prescribed. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, between 21 and 29 percent of patients who take opioids for chronic pain misuse them.

A Scheme to Push OxyContin on the Most Vulnerable

Purdue Pharma devised a heartless marketing plan to peddle its painkillers to doctors in rural areas with blue collar patients suffering from workplace injuries: miners in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and eastern Kentucky and fishermen in Maine. These small town communities were soon devastated by OxyContin as folks became addicted, illegal dealing of it commenced, crime soared, and jail cells filled. The foster care system was overwhelmed with neglected kids, their addicted parents no longer capable of caring for them. Teenagers began to crush up OxyContin pills and snort them. Others added water to their OxyContin pills and injected the solution into their veins. Both of these were ways for teens to get a faster and more intense high but also increased their chances of overdosing.

Celebrities and Opioids

More than a million Americans, mostly young and middle-aged, have died from overdoses during the opioid epidemic according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were more than 100,000 deaths in 2021 alone. This far-reaching tragedy began in the late 1990’s when pharmaceutical companies such as Purdue began aggressively marketing their opioid products.

Early victims of the opioid epidemic were those who are often overlooked in our society: poor folks who lived in rural parts of our country. Yet, opioid abuse soon became a scourge in our cities and suburbs as well. Within no time, we were reading tragic headlines about celebrities who got hooked on these drugs.

Unlike regular folks, though, famous ones often employ "yes men and women" who cater to their every need, deny them nothing, and would never dare suggest their bosses have a drug problem. This was certainly the case for superstars such as Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and Prince. Sadly, they even had doctors who wouldn't say no to them.

20 Celebrities Who Got Hooked on Opioids

Matthew Perry–Vicodin

When the cast of the beloved sitcom Friends recently came together for a televised reunion, one of its stars received a lot of scrutiny: Matthew Perry. The actor, now in his 50’s, played the lovably sarcastic Chandler Bing during the show’s 10 year run from 1994 to 2004. When the show began, Perry was just 24.

During the reunion, some fans were genuinely concerned about the actor’s haggard-looking appearance and slurred speech. Undoubtedly, viewers were especially worried given Perry’s past problems with both alcohol and the opioid, Vicodin, that were well-documented in the media. During a break from shooting Friends, Perry had been injured in a jet ski accident. He was prescribed Vicodin for the pain and continued to take it even when he no longer needed to do so.

Today, Perry is quite open about his decades-long struggle with addiction. He admits to not remembering three seasons of the classic sitcom because he had been in a drug-induced haze. Today, though, he can take comfort in knowing he wasn’t alone in that battle. The American Medical Association says an estimated 3 to 19 percent of patients who take prescribed pain medication develop an addiction to it.

In the video below, Matthew Perry talks with a doctor about the problem of doctors over prescribing pain medication and how it leads to overdoses.

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Rush Limbaugh–Oxycontin

“Hillbilly heroin” is one of the many nicknames for OxyContin due to its popularity in poor, rural areas. That moniker hardly seemed fitting, though, when the ultra rich and ultra conservative radio host, Rush Limbaugh, announced in 2003 that he was addicted to the prescription painkiller. While he refrained from naming the drug, Limbaugh was indeed addicted to OxyContin according to media reports.

After making the on-air announcement to his 20 million listeners and admitting he’d been struggling for years, Limbaugh checked into a rehabilitation center. This would be his third time. He told his audience he’d been prescribed the painkillers after undergoing spinal surgery.

Like others hooked on OxyContin, Limbaugh’s third trip to rehab didn’t result in relief and recovery. In 2006, he was arrested on prescription drug charges. He’d been the subject of a three-year investigation, resulting in an accusation of “doctor shopping.” Officials said Limbaugh had deceived multiple doctors in order to obtain multiple prescriptions. The charges were ultimately dismissed when the radio host promised to continue treatment for drug addiction.

Demi Lovato–Heroin Laced with Fentanyl

Demi Lovato is a singer and actor who recently announced they’re non-binary and prefer the pronouns they/them. They’ve been performing since the age of 9 when appearing on Barney and Friends. Unlike famous folks of the past who kept their addictions secret, fearful they wouldn’t get hired, Lovato represents a new kind of celebrity who’s vocal and transparent about their addictions including alcohol and cocaine.

After six years of sobriety, Lovato relapsed in 2018. During this period, they overdosed on fentanyl laced oxycodone and heroin. They had several strokes and a heart attack as a result of the overdose. They opened up about their demons with both legal and illegal drugs in the 2021 documentary, Dancing with the Devil.

In the video below, Demi Lovato discusses their drug use with prescription and illegal drugs, their six years of sobriety, relapse, and overdose.

Elvis Presley–Percodan, Demerol, and Codeine

Most everyone chooses to remember Elvis as the sensual young man who played the guitar, swiveled his hips, and belted out “Hound Dog” on The Ed Sullivan Show. It’s just too painful to envision him as the bloated, drug addicted, fading superstar who died from a heart attack while sitting on the toilet at Graceland. However, it’s shocking to recall he was just 42 at the time of his passing.

Elvis was one of the earliest victims of opioid abuse, his heart attack triggered by profound, longtime drug use. In the autopsy’s toxicology report, high levels of opiates were found in his blood including Percodan, Demerol, and Codeine. Presley also abused Quaaludes, antihistamines, tranquilizers, and laxatives. Sadly, he was not only the king of rock ‘n roll but the prince of prescription pill popping.

Lisa Marie Presley–Opioids

Fans of the late Elvis Presley have a special place in their hearts for his only child, Lisa Marie, who was just 9 years old when he died. Their tenderness for her only increased when her only son, 27-year-old Benjamin Keough, committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. The autopsy report showed alcohol and cocaine in his system.

The three generations of Presleys–Elvis, Lisa Marie, and Benjamin–tragically illustrate the genetic component of addiction that so many families know all too well. Lisa Marie developed an addiction to opioids later in life, becoming hooked on painkillers in her 40’s. They were initially prescribed to her by a doctor for discomfort after giving birth to her twin daughters. Even though both her father and former husband, Michael Jackson, died from drug complications, Lisa Marie couldn’t ward off the addictive nature of opioids and succumbed to them as well.

Today, Lisa Marie is in her 50’s and going through a combative divorce from her fourth husband. An intensely private person, she’s willing to tell her story in order to help others. Her goal is to end the stigma and shame surrounding addiction so people can get the support and treatment they need.

Other Celebrities Who've Battled Opioids

Jamie Lee Curtis

Vicodin

Heath Ledger (accidental drug overdose)

hydrocodone, oxycodone

Russell Brand

heroin

Nicole Richie

Vicodin

Eminem

Vicodin

Prince (accidental drug overdose)

fentanyl

Winona Ryder

oxycodone

Michael Jackson (death from cardiac arrest brought on by a lethal combination of sedatives and Propofol administered by his doctor, ruled a homicide)

hydrocodone, hydromorphone

Jack Osbourne

OxyContin

Robert Downey, Jr.

heroin

Philip Seymour Hoffman (accidental drug overdose, acute mixed drug intoxication)

heroin

Cindy McCain

Vicodin, Percocet

Anna Nicole Smith (accidental drug overdose, combined drug intoxication)

methadone

Carrie Fisher

heroin

Courtney Love

hydrocodone, OxyContin

© 2022 McKenna Meyers

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