Prince's death: The view from front lines of drug epidemic

Prince's death: The view from front lines of drug epidemic

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NEW YORK (AP) — On the front lines of America's fight against a drug-abuse epidemic, there have been emotional, sometimes contradictory reactions to news that investigators are looking into whether Prince died of an overdose.

Those engaged in the fight say a celebrity's death can help raise awareness of the problems yet also overshadow the other victims dying by the hundreds every week. Others suggest the attention to celebrity deaths is transitory and has limited impact.

In Prince's case, investigators are looking into whether a doctor was prescribing him drugs in the weeks preceding his death. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported Wednesday that Prince's representatives, shortly before his death on April 21, had arranged for the musician to meet a California doctor to help him kick an addiction to painkillers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the record number of drug overdose deaths in 2014 included 18,893 related to prescription pain relievers and 10,574 related to heroin, which many abusers switch to after becoming hooked on painkillers.

Barbara Cimaglio, the deputy health commissioner in Vermont, raised the possibility that Prince's death — depending on what details emerge — might help accelerate an ongoing national discussion about to how to ensure that physicians follow proper procedures in prescribing opioid painkillers. Her department has joined in a call for changes that might help curtail dangerous prescribing practices.

Vermont is among several states where overdose deaths have increased sharply in in the past few years. Its neighbor, New Hampshire, now has one of the highest overdose death rates in the nation.

Fond memories of Prince remain vivid for Tym Rourke, 44, who works with the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and is chairman of the Governor's Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention. "I saw him in concert when I was in high school," Rourke said. "I've never seen anything like it and probably never will."

Rourke has been working in the addiction field for two decades, and says there's been a dramatic change in recent years as more people find they know someone who is directly affected by serious drug abuse.

"No one has the luxury anymore of talking about substance abuse disorder in the abstract," he said.

In Rutland, Vermont, a small city hard hit by drug abuse, Tracy Hauck is executive director of the Turning Point Center, which helps people attempting to recover from addiction. Hauck went through that process herself, after losing her nursing license when she was caught forging a prescription for the painkillers that she was hooked on.

A high-profile overdose death can help raise awareness of addiction problems, she said, but overall her feelings are mixed.

"I get a little resentful when all the hype is out there because it's a celebrity," she said. "It happens to other people every day."

She said affluent celebrities may have access to doctors who will prescribe opioids in their pure form, while less well-connected addicts resort to drugs bought on the street that may have been mixed with high-risk additives such as fentanyl.

Catherine Fennelly of Quincy, Massachusetts, whose 21-year-old son died of a fentanyl-laced overdose of heroin last year, runs a support group for others affected by overdose deaths. She said there could be a sliver of an upside if it's determined that Prince was an overdose victim.

"He was such a great person, an amazing musician," Fennelly said. "Someone who followed him might be like, 'Wow, it affects everyone. No one's invincible.'"

Across the country, in Orange, California, Denise Cullen is executive director of a national network called GRASP that seeks to support families and individuals who have lost a loved one to substance abuse or addiction. Cullen's own son died of addiction-related problems in 2008.

Cullen said she sensed increased public interest and understanding of addiction after the drug-induced death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in February 2014, and she speculated that Prince's death might accelerate this shift.

"I don't mean to sound ghoulish, but I think this helps us," she said. "When someone is talented and appreciated, people write about it, talk about it ... When it's done properly, I think it's a good thing."

One of the women in Cullen's network is Danna Bushell, a registered nurse from Arvada, Colorado, who says her 23-year old son has struggled with heroin for several years.

Bushell, who recalls being a high school freshman when Prince released his hit "Purple Rain" in 1984, hopes that whatever unfolds in regard to his death does not add to the stigma that's widely attached to drug addiction. She poured out her feelings after his death in a personal essay.

"If Prince died of an overdose or related complications, that in no way detracts from what an outstanding artist he was, or what an amazing human being he may have been," she wrote. "It's a tragedy to lose such an icon, but even more deplorable would be to learn that we lost Prince, along with so many other bright, talented, sensitive human beings, to an epidemic that our society, by and large, has proven too apathetic to address in any meaningful way."

Rourke, in New Hampshire, is unsure what the impact of Prince's death might be, once details are established.

"We've had high profile, well-beloved artists die of substance abuse for the last 30, 40 years," he said. "Maybe Prince's death will raise the visibility of the issue. But when I first heard this was possible I just shook my head and thought, 'Not again.'"

Cimaglio, the Vermont health official, is old enough to remember the drug-fueled deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix in 1970.

"There seems to be a string of celebrity deaths that gets people's attention for a period of time, and then we move on to the next thing," she said.


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