Fentanyl Blamed in Prince Overdose

By Pat Anson, Editor

A medical examiner has confirmed widespread speculation that opioids were involved in the accidental death of pop star Prince. The surprise was the type of opioid that was found in the singer's system.

“The decedent self-administered fentanyl,” Dr. A. Quinn Strobl, chief medical examiner for the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office, wrote in his widely awaited report, which you can see by clicking here.

The report was released six weeks after Prince's death and only covered the manner and cause of death. All other information is considered private under Minnesota law.

The medical examiner’s report is likely to focus new attention on the so-called opioid abuse epidemic, which is routinely blamed on prescription opioids. Fentanyl is a potent opioid more powerful than morphine, and when prescribed the drug is generally only given to people in severe pain.

However, the report does not state whether the fentanyl that killed Prince was from a prescription or if it was illicit fentanyl obtained through other means.

Illicit fentanyl is an odorless white powder that is typically combined with heroin or cocaine to boost their potency. In recent months it has increasingly been found in counterfeit pain medication sold on the streets.  

Thousands of people have died from fentanyl overdoses in the U.S. and Canada, but because of the nature of the drug it’s impossible to tell whether it was prescribed legally and used for medical reasons or manufactured illegally and sold as a street drug.

“Toxicology tests used by coroners and medical examiners are unable to distinguish between prescription and illicit fentanyl. Based on reports from states and drug seizure data, however, a substantial portion of the increase in synthetic opioid deaths appears to be related to increased availability of illicit fentanyl,” said a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which nevertheless still classifies all fentanyl overdoses as prescription drug deaths.

Massachusetts and Rhode Island recently reported a “significant increase” in fentanyl-related overdoses, with nearly 60% of the fatal overdoses in those states now attributed to fentanyl. Rhode Island health officials say the shift to fentanyl worsened when “more focused efforts were undertaken nationally to reduce the supply of prescription drugs.”  

Prince’s body was found in an elevator at his Paisley Park estate near Minneapolis on April 21. There was immediate speculation the singer was addicted to pain medication that he took for hip pain, but the only opioid ever mentioned was Percocet.  In the days before his death, Prince reportedly sought help from an addiction specialist in California.

The singer’s use of painkillers and how he obtained them are now the focus of a criminal investigation. No charges have been filed and a judge has sealed all records in the case.

According to search warrant that was accidentally released and obtained by the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Michael Todd Schulenberg, a family medicine practitioner, treated Prince on April 7 and 20, the day before his death.