The long-awaited results of Prince's autopsy were released by Minnesota officials on Thursday, and the official cause of death is an accidental overdose of self-administered fentanyl, as the New York Times reports. Multiple reports emerged in the days following Prince's April 21 death that the star suffered from an opioid addiction, but at the time the first reports were that his painkiller of choice was Percocet. The news about fentanyl in his blood the amount has not been disclosed casts yet another shadow on his case, and could mean serious trouble for a Minnesota doctor who treated Prince one day before his death.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is said to be 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine, and it is typically only administered in a hospital setting. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that illegal fentanyl being sold on the street, sometimes masquerading as other drugs, was responsible for 700 deaths between 2013 and 2014, leading them to issue this warning in 2015. More recently, a spate of about 300 fentanyl overdoses in San Francisco caused alarm bells, most of which ended with lives saved by emergency doses of naloxone, also known as Narcan, which is now carried by all SF police officers.
Days before Prince's death, he was also reportedly given a life-saving dose of naloxone after his plane made an emergency landing in Indiana. The Wall Street Journal earlier had attributed that overdose to Percocet.
Legal experts say the finding that Prince died of an accidental overdose of the synthetic opioid fentanyl could make the prospect of criminal charges more likely.
A Chicago-based attorney [Gal Pissetzky] with no link to the case says the substance, while it has medical applications, is frequently associated with illegal trafficking.
[Pissetzky] also explains that categorizing the death as accidental indicates only that it was not intentional. It does not preclude charges if the fentanyl was supplied illegally.
The illegal distribution of fentanyl resulting in death carries a mandatory minimum 20 years behind bars in federal court.
The day before Prince died, April 20, when he was also reportedly visited by Minnesota doctor Michael Schulenberg, his associates called in the emergency help of Northern California opioid addiction treatment specialist Dr. Howard Kornfeld. Saying he could not arrive until the 22nd, Kornfeld sent his son Andrew Kornfeld, who is not a licensed physician, ahead of him on a redeye flight. The younger Kornfeld allegedly arrived at Paisley Park with a quantity of the drug buprenorphine which Dr. Kornfeld uses in the treatment of opioid addiction, and which is gaining traction in the addiction treatment community only to find the singer already deceased in an elevator on the property.
Vox today highlights the fact that Prince's case proves the severity of the opioid addiction epidemic in the US, and according to a recent survey "one in five Americans has a family member who's addicted to prescription painkillers, and more than four in 10 Americans personally know someone who's addicted."
It is alarming that a celebrity with Prince's wealth and resources should have come so close to the brink of death with his addiction, only to be saved and to die just days later though the Journal discussed earlier how, following the advent of Narcan, it's becoming more common to see it used more than once on a single patient if they are not ushered immediately into treatment. It's effectiveness, however, is limited to about 30 minutes from the time of an overdose, and it appears that first-responders did not reach Prince in time to administer it on April 21.
Dr. Kornfeld spoke out last month to the San Francisco Chronicle saying, in part, "[Opioid addiction] isn’t a problem that should be solved by commercial industry. This is a national epidemic that needs to be prioritized, just as the AIDS epidemic was prioritized."