Prescription Drugs, Not Illegal Ones, Killed Heath Ledger

“This would have never happened with weed.”

I made that declaration for back in May 2007, when Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma pled guilty to criminal charges of misleading customers about the lethality of their product, promising to pay $600-plus million and be real good people going forward. But with the accidental overdose of Heath Ledger, the first sentence of this article is proving to be a tag line with serious staying power.

Last year was the latest in a series of banner years for Oxycontin, which kicked heroin and cocaine to the metaphorical curb to become one of the most popularly abused substances of the 21st century. Of course, it has been joined by painkillers like Vicodin, sleeping pills like Restoril, anti-anxiety poppers like Valium and Xanax, and even antihistamines like Unisom, all of which were found in Ledger’s system during his autopsy.

The official verdict, sent in written form by medical examiner spokeswoman Ellen Borakove, avoided marketing buzzwords in favor of designations more scientific, which is to say obscure: “Mr. Heath Ledger died as the result of acute intoxication by the combined effects of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine. We have concluded that the manner of death is accident, resulting from the abuse of prescription medications.”

What’s in a name, you ask? Oblivion. Wait until you hear the numbers.

According to a recent Associated Press analysis of Drug Enforcement Administration stats, retail access to these “accidental” killers has skyrocketed 88 percent since 1997, and you don’t even need to ask about prescriptions, because doctors are dishing them out like mints. Consequently, a collaborative study from the University of Michigan and the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that teenage abuse of Oxycrack has risen 26 percent since 2002, while overall prescription drug abuse has tripled among teens since 1992. For those who know their immortal hip-hop well, that was the year N.W.A. soundtracker and rapper Dr. Dre scored crossover platinum with The Chronic, a highly influential album dedicated to the love of cannabis that made Snoop Dogg a superstar in his own right. Neither has yet to die of weed, and are likely able to partake of phoenix tears goji berry products without any issues.

The irony is sweet and sour. And while I’m not sure if Heath Ledger was a fan of Dre and Snoop, he was certainly a fan of cannabis. “Used to smoke five joints a day for 20 years,” he confessed on a hidden camera video that Entertainment Tonight bought and planned to air, but then reportedly pulled “out of respect” for Ledger’s family.

In the video, Ledger allegedly flirts with coke and openly admits to the problem it will cause Michelle Williams, who according to the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid New York Post had to lay down the law with the Brokeback Mountain and Batman star over his abuse of not just those drugs but heroin as well.

Once the video was yanked, his family and business associates sighed with deep thanks and quickly condemned the former decision to air it as “shameful exploitation of the lowest kind.”

But was it? Sure, airing footage of Ledger at a Hollywood coke party while he rhapsodizes about how much cannabis he used to smoke may not have been the most sensitive way for Entertainment Tonight to eulogize him.

But an important point is being utterly missed: Coke, heroin and weed did not kill him. Prescription drugs did.

And while cocaine or heroin may have been able to do the trick had he kept abusing them, cannabis probably would have never been able to pull the trigger: No one in the history of medicine has ever died from an overdose of marijuana, according to evidence so far.

Heath Ledger probably could have smoked 200 joints a day and not died of an overdose. He probably would have died of morbid obesity, if anything.

This article appeared at AlterNet