It has been over 40 years since Elvis Presley’s death in 1977, but in many ways, his legend lives on. Elvis was a musical and cultural icon who will never truly die, from a societal standpoint, and his influence is not easily forgotten.
While Elvis is best known for his musical and acting performances, there is much to be learned from the nature of his death as well. Despite an apparent belief that he was not a drug abuser, drug use played an unfortunate role in the unraveling of his career and his ultimate untimely death. From the cocktail of drugs in his system at the time of his death to the actions of his physician in the last few months of his life, Elvis’ death informs many realities of modern addiction. A lot of knowledge has been left behind in the King’s legacy, from learning what drugs Elvis did to what his story reveals about the nature of physician-supported addiction.
The 10 Drugs in Elvis Presley’s System
On August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley was found dead on his bathroom floor in Memphis, Tennessee. Despite his physician’s insistence and the assertions of the original medical examiner that drugs played no role in his death, later examination revealed this was absolutely not the case. Through his toxicology reports, medical examiners found that he actually had traces of 14 drugs in his system, 10 of which were present in significant quantities. These primary 10 substances include:
- Codeine: Codeine is a prescription pain medication that is used to address moderate pain. Today, it’s often found in prescription cough medication.
- Morphine: A potent form of opiate, morphine is a highly controlled substance that is both addictive and dangerous when used without supervision.
- Methaqualone: Methaqualone is a barbiturate-like sedative and hypnotic medication that is more commonly known by its brand name, Quaalude. This central nervous system depressant was popular for recreational use in the 1970s and 1980s.
- Diazepam: Better known as Valium, diazepam is a benzodiazepine commonly used for conditions like anxiety and insomnia.
- N-Desmethyldiazepam: More commonly referred to as nordazepam, this benzodiazepine can be used for anxiety, insomnia and seizures. Today, it is a less common choice versus other benzodiazepine forms.
- Ethinamate: Another hypnotic and sedative medication, ethinamate is a carbamate derivative that can be highly addictive.
- Ethclorvynol: Sold under the name Placidyl, ethclorvynol was a GABA-ergic sedative and hypnotic medication popular in the mid-1990s for treating insomnia. Today, Placidyl is no longer available in the US due to dwindling demand in favor of safer and more effective alternatives but can still be found in other countries.
- Pentobarbital: Pentobarbital is a short-acting barbiturate that can cause sedative side effects.
- Phenobarbital: A barbiturate similar to pentobarbital, phenobarbital is a short-term drug used to treat anxiety, insomnia and seizures.
- Butabarbital: Butabarbital is a barbiturate used to treat insomnia and anxiety disorders.
A high number of the drugs found in Presley’s system were either barbiturates or benzodiazepines. These kinds of drugs are very addictive and should never be mixed. As demonstrated in his death, significant doses can result in depression of the nervous system to the point that suppressed breathing and heart rate can be fatal. Further, the amount of codeine found in his body alone was over 30 times higher than the recommended dose.
All of the drugs found during autopsy are prescription medications rather than street drugs like heroin. While it’s not impossible to purchase these kinds of medications illegally, especially for a celebrity with deep pockets, evidence indicates that Presley was offered many of these medications legally.
Presley’s Dark History
In retrospect, the role of drugs was obvious in Presley’s death, despite his doctor’s efforts to cover up his abuse and his odd stance as an anti-drug advocate. To this end, even the original autopsy listed cardiac arrest as a cause of death. However, this was quickly refuted by the results of a more thorough investigation, which highlighted the astounding cocktail of drugs he had consumed in the hours before he died.
In spite of the shock his death caused, those who knew Presley’s life likely weren’t surprised. He was hospitalized in 1973 for pethidine addiction and overdosed twice on barbiturates in the same year. By the end of his life, he was also very overweight and allegedly suffered from numerous complications of drug addiction, including glaucoma, liver damage and high blood pressure.
Prescription Medication and Addiction
Today, the role of prescription medications in addiction is quite well known, particularly in the context of the rise in opioid use, abuse and overdose. Prescription opioids play a large role in heroin addiction, in part due to the excessive availability of drugs like morphine and fentanyl.
However, in 1977, the connections between safe medications provided by a doctor and more dangerous street drugs were a little less obvious. As such, many of the safeguards in place today to catch doctors running pill mills didn’t exist at the time of Presley’s death. However, that doesn’t mean doctors weren’t well aware of some of the dangers of both overprescribing and mixing medications.
George Nichopoulos, better known as Dr. Nick, was Presley’s physician from 1970 to 1977. He began working with Presley to address saddle pain before getting caught up in prescribing an unnecessarily large number of drugs. His role in Presley’s death is undeniable: In 1977 alone, Dr. Nick wrote him prescriptions for over 10,000 doses of narcotics, amphetamines and sedatives. It’s clear that these drugs weren’t warranted but were instead a way to placate Presley. As Dr. Nick put it himself, Presley “felt that by getting drugs from a doctor, he wasn’t the common everyday junkie getting something off the street.” Unfortunately, that’s not how drugs work. Regardless of the source, addictive medications can be just as potent, whether they come from a doctor’s pen or a dealer’s hand.
In 1980, Dr. Nick was indicted on 14 counts of overprescribing drugs to Presley and other celebrities, including Jerry Lee Lewis. The jury failed to convict him based on the lack of evidence that his motives were malicious. However, Dr. Nick was eventually stripped of his license in 1993, despite his insistence that he wasn’t trying to hurt people; he just cared too much about them.
Despite the perception that prescription medications are safe, it’s easy to abuse many drugs that are provided by a doctor. And even the restrictions of prescriptions aren’t quite as limited as they should be in the modern world; millions of Americans “doctor shop” on a regular basis to get the meds they feel they need to either feel normal or get high. This leads to an unnecessarily high number of prescription drug users and, unfortunately, higher rates of addiction.
Elvis Presley’s story is tragic, but it’s one we can learn from. By knowing what drugs Elvis did and understanding the role of illegitimate prescriptions, it’s possible to better regulate the industry and see the signs of abuse before it’s too late.