A prosecutor in Minnesota announced Thursday that no one will be held criminally liable for the accidental overdose death of music legend Prince in April 2016. Instead, the only person to face any sanction whatsoever in the legendary musician’s untimely demise is a physician—Dr. Michael T. Schulenberg—who is being fined $30,000 for providing narcotic pain pills to the musician through an intermediary.
Had Schulenberg been the exclusive provider of pain pills to the musician, it’s very likely he’d be alive today. Because unlike Percocet, the unknown potency of illicit fentanyl is like playing Russian roulette every time you take a dose. (Imagine if every time you drank a glass of wine you didn’t know if it was 12 percent alcohol or full-proof.)
According to reports, the 57-year-old music icon died at his Paisley Park estate, southwest of Minneapolis, on the morning of April 21, 2016, by ingesting a pill he believed to be Vicodin. In fact, the medication was a counterfeit version of the opioid containing the powerful painkiller fentanyl.
Prince “had a history of going through withdrawals, which were believed to be the result of the abuse of prescription medication,” according to a police affidavit.
By the time he died it was an open secret to those closest to him that Prince was abusing narcotic painkillers (PDF). Two weeks before his death, while flying back from a concert in Atlanta, Prince became unresponsive, requiring two doses of the overdose reversal drug naloxone.
On the morning he died Prince was trying desperately to get into treatment for his prescription drug abuse, and was awaiting a visit by California addiction specialist Dr. Howard Kornfeld. It was Kornfeld’s son who would ultimately discover the pop star, just after 10 a.m. unresponsive in an elevator inside the Paisley Park premise. Coroners believe Prince had been dead for at least six hours by then.
Following his death, investigators discovered “a sizable amount of narcotic medications” throughout Prince’s residence. One cluster of pills, marked “Watson 853,” contained fentanyl in concentrations high enough to cause pulmonary distress and death.
It’s not known exactly how long Schulenberg had been prescribing Percocet indirectly to Prince, or when or how the musician obtained the counterfeit Vicodin that killed him. After the incident on the plane ride back from Atlanta, records suggest Schulenberg attempted to treat the musician’s withdrawal with the non-narcotic drugs clonidine and hydroxyzine (an antihistamine sometimes used to treat anxiety). It’s a common, but often ineffective cocktail for weaning opioid dependent people off drugs.
While the origin of the fentanyl pills that killed Prince remains a mystery, his fatal overdose coincided with a spike in fatal and nonfatal overdoses across the country attributed to counterfeit Vicodin laced with fentanyl. In the weeks prior to his death, fentanyl disguised as various brands of acetaminophen/hydrocodone (the drug combination found in Vicodin) sickened dozens in Northern California.
Just weeks before Prince’s death, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) launched an anonymous tip line in San Francisco seeking information on the pills’ source. The drugs that killed Prince could have come from there and bought by someone close to him on the street.
One of the main sources for fentanyl pressed into pills has been Canada, as The Daily Beast recently reported. Canada has also emerged as a primary pipeline for fentanyl pressed into pills for delivery in the U.S. market.
According to The Partnership for Safe Medicines, Canadian authorities have shut down more than 20 fentanyl labs since 2013. And since 2015, numerous overdose outbreaks attributed to counterfeit Xanax or opioids that contain fentanyl or fentanyl analogues have been reported in the U.S.
Among the many oddities surrounding this case is the fact that, according to investigators, Prince had ten 5 mg Percocet in his possession when he died—likely prescribed at some point by Dr. Schulenberg. What compelled the musician to take the Vicodin instead we may never know (the discovery of pills broken into half suggests he had taken it before).
But one thing that is indisputable is that had Prince simply continued in the care of Schulenberg until Kornfeld arrived and was encouraged to continue taking only the Percocet the physician had been fined for providing him until he was safely in treatment, there is a very strong possibility he would be alive, and maybe even drug free, today.