A new report on the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of rock legend Prince suggests he may have fallen victim to the counterfeit opioid trade sweeping the western United States. Officials investigating Paisley Park — Prince’s sprawling Minnesota mansion — discovered counterfeit medication that resembled pills manufactured by Watson Laboratories but carried a much more devastating opioid punch than the original drug, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported on Sunday. Instead of containing the acetaminophen-hydrocodone cocktail normally found in the pills, the fake medication contained fentanyl — a synthetic opioid hundreds of times stronger than what Prince likely thought he was taking.
Officials don’t think Prince was aware he was ingesting the deadly drug. Autopsy results showed that his body — which, at the time of his death, was a scant 112 pounds — contained enough fentanyl to kill anyone, regardless of size. The official report released by the Midwestern Medical Examiner’s office in June indicated that Prince died from an overdose of fentanyl, but it wasn’t clear how it had gotten into his system. While more evidence is needed to confirm that Prince’s death was due to the counterfeit pills discovered in his home, an accidental overdose on fentanyl currently seems to be the most likely explanation.
Multiple deaths resulting from similar counterfeit fentanyl-containing pills masquerading as the opioid painkiller Norco have been reported in the U.S. this year. The pills are thought to be shipped in from China, where clandestine laboratories producing hundreds of novel psychoactive substances, including synthetic opioids, are based. In July, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued a warning about the counterfeit prescription pills, which have made their way into the U.S. black market for drugs.
It’s not clear how Prince came to acquire the counterfeit pills, and it’s clear he didn’t have a prescription for fentanyl, which is only administered to patients in extreme pain. It’s likely, however, that his story mirrors that of thousands of Americans affected by the national opioid addiction crisis. As the body’s tolerance for painkillers inevitably builds, users will seek stronger medication, but it isn’t always available to them through legitimate means — physicians, after all, have a responsibility to prevent the onset of addiction by withholding drug access. Frustrated and wracked with pain, users are often forced to resort to shadier sources, which rarely guarantee the content of the drugs they sell.
Photos via Getty Images / Kevin Winter