Prescription Drugs Eyed in Whitney Houston Death Probe


An official cause of death will not be known for several weeks, but authorities are investigating the pop star's use of prescription drugs.

An official cause of death will not be known for several weeks, but authorities are investigating the pop star’s use of prescription drugs.

There is no official word yet on what caused the death of pop star Whitney Houston, but prescription drugs have emerged as a possible culprit.

Houston, 48, was found underwater in a bathtub in her Beverly Hills hotel room on the evening of Saturday, February 11. In the room, ABC News reported, were several bottles of prescription drugs, including Xanax (alprazolam), Valium (diazepam), and Ativan (lorazepam), all commonly used to treat anxiety. Authorities have cautioned, however, that there were not an inordinately large number of pill bottles in the room and that Houston's cause of death will not be known until toxicology tests are completed in several weeks.

To investigate the potential role of prescription drugs in Houston’s death, the Los Angeles Times reported that police were expected to serve subpoenas to doctors and pharmacies. The Times added that knowledgeable figures said that the investigation would likely involve determining whether the pill bottles contained the substances indicated on their labels and whether the medications had been taken at the rate at which they were prescribed.

"Her death is absolutely tragic and this brings attention to the problem that she had talked about in the past and that certainly is prescription drugs,” White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said in an interview with CBS News. “It affects a huge number of people in this country and has driven deaths to very, very high numbers—well over 15,000.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 36,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2008, more than triple the number in 1990, and most of these were caused by prescription drugs. Overdose deaths now surpass motor vehicle deaths.

Houston had been in and out of rehab for cocaine and alcohol abuse over the years. In some cases, illegal drug abusers can slide into abusing prescription drugs based on the false impression that they are safe. In fact, they can be extremely dangerous, especially when mixed. It is unknown whether Houston died due to drowning, but individuals in a drug-induced stupor who fall into water can fail to wake up as a sober person would.

Prescription drugs have been fingered in the deaths of several other celebrities in recent years, most prominently Michael Jackson. The coroner ruled Jackson’s June 2009 death a homicide caused by the powerful anesthetic propofol, with lorazepam contributing to the death. Also detected in Jackson’s system were the sedatives midazolam and diazepam, the painkiller lidocaine, and the stimulant ephedrine.

Jackson’s personal doctor, Conrad Murray, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter last November in connection with the death. Beverly Hills police have said that they do not see Houston’s death as a homicide and have no plans to launch a criminal investigation.

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