The untimely death of Michael Jackson has put the spotlight on the issue of prescription drug abuse. On the night that Jackson died, Brian Oxman, the family spokesman and attorney, told CNN that the people surrounding Jackson were "enabling him" and that prescription drugs were most likely the cause of his death.
New age guru and medical doctor Deepak Chopra, a longtime Jackson friend, echoed Oxman a day later on CNN: "I think drugs killed him." Chopra said he has been concerned since 2005 that Jackson was abusing prescription drugs. Chopra said Jackson asked him for painkillers following his trial on sex abuse allegations in 2005. When Chopra refused, Jackson reportedly found other doctors willing to make house calls at Jackson's various residences in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara County, Miami and New York.
Chopra and Oxman brought up the issue of prescription drug use in the hours after Jackson's death, and they're probably right, although the official cause of death is not expected for several weeks. Originally the cause of death was said to be cardiac arrest, and the news reports coming out originally didn't give much more information than that.
The suddenness of Jackson's death caught the media by surprise, but interviews with people who knew Jackson started to suggest something other than a common heart attack. The nanny of Jackson's kids repeatedly contacted Chopra with concerns about his drug use over the last four years. Many of his friends and acquaintances knew of his ongoing problem with prescription drugs, but chose to do nothing about it.
The media circus that followed Jackson's death caught up with the drug rumors, and the focus of the story became Jackson's live-in cardiologist, Dr. Conrad Murray. Murray was with Jackson at the time of his death and tried to resuscitate him. Reports have surfaced that Jackson was given a shot of Demerol just hours before his death, and he was hooked on prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin. Dr. Murray's attorney has told the Associated Press that his client did not prescribe these or any other drugs to Jackson.
Questions remain as to how a cardiologist ended up living with Jackson, who reportedly hired the doctor to accompany him on his comeback tour, which was to start in a couple of weeks in London, England. The police have questioned Murray, but he has remained silent and is only speaking through his attorney, who so far hasn't released any information other than that his client is innocent of any wrongdoing.
Rev. Jesse Jackson, a friend of the family, on Saturday told ABC's "Good Morning America" that he had spent Friday counseling the family. "They are suspicious of this doctor and they have real reason to be because any other doctor would say, 'Here's what happened in the last hour of his life and I was there. I gave him some medicine'," Rev. Jackson said. "He owes it to the family and to the public."
The abuse of prescription drugs is not limited to the rich and famous. It has taken the shock of Michael Jackson's tragic death to highlight a problem that has been growing over the last few years. The abuse of prescription drugs, including painkillers and stimulants, now ranks second, only behind marijuana, as the nation's most prevalent illegal drug problem, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Among teens and young adults, the use of prescription drugs to get high is becoming an increasingly troublesome and dangerous problem.
Sean Clarkin, director of strategy for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, says young people are drawn to prescription drugs because "there is a relatively low perception of risk. Some of those attitudes that kids have are shared by their parents," Clarkin says. "There is a cultural climate, the 'pill for any ill' mentality is contributing to this."
As for Jackson, no solid evidence has yet emerged that he was abusing prescription drugs, but if you look at the case realistically, you can pretty much rule everything else out. A medical check-up in April for the purpose of clearing Jackson's insurance company to cover his comeback tour, showed no evidence of cardiac problems. He was working out with bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno, who said Jackson appeared to be in excellent health. Jackson performed a full dress rehearsal at the Staples Center the night before his death, without needing any breaks or showing any signs of illness.
As a spokesman for the Los Angeles County coroner's office said that more tests would be required to determine if prescription drugs contributed to his death, Jackson's family and fans have reached the conclusion that his death could have been prevented.
Brian Oxman finished his CNN interview just hours after Jackson's death by saying: "If you think that the case of Anna Nicole Smith was an abuse, it is nothing in comparison to what we have seen taking place in Michael Jackson's life. This is something which I feared and it is something which I warned about. I don't know the cause of all this, so I can't tell you what the ultimate result of it's going to be, but I can tell you for sure, when you warn people that this is what's going to happen and then it happens, where there is smoke, there is fire."
All of the drugs taken by Jackson were reportedly prescribed by licenced physicians. These are the "enablers" Oxman referred to, in addition to Jackson's friends and family members who knew about his addiction and did nothing.
Oxman, an attorney, had warned about Jackson's problem with prescription drugs. But what about Deepak Chopra, a medical doctor? He knew about the problem, and although he refused to prescribe any medicine, did he have an ethical obligation to intervene. In his interview with CNN, Chopra repeatedly called Jackson his "brother," but who would let their brother go down the lonely path travelled by Michael Jackson. As a doctor, there must have been more Chopra could do.
Experts in the area of drug prevention say that the Jackson case should be a good way to bring up the topic of prescription drug abuse to young people. The case should give parents a moment to reexamine the potential effects of abusing painkillers. "This is a teachable moment for parents," says Clarkin, "to communicate with their kids about abusing this stuff."
If Michael Jackson's death has brought the issue of prescription drug abuse to the forefront of the public consciousness, than something good has come out of the tragedy.