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Prince’s cause of death doesn’t make him any less of an icon

Though it’s not official, an unnamed police source close to the investigation of Prince’s April death confirmed that he died of an accidental opioid overdose.

The source — who was not authorized to speak about the case — told the Minneapolis StarTribune that the music legend died of an overdose of painkillers.

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The 57-year-old was found dead in an elevator at his home outside Minneapolis just days after his private plane was diverted to Illinois for a medical emergency. Initial reports pointed to the flu as the cause of the hospital visit, though later rumors said it was because of his addiction to painkillers.

“I would give overwhelming odds that, tragically, this is a drug death,” said family forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht. “When you rule out foul play, when there is no history of any kind of significant disease… heart and lung… when you rule out any kind of intervention, anything of an environmental nature, you come down to an autopsy that is essentially negative… and that probably means drugs.”

Does this change how we should feel about Prince? No, not at all.

Addiction to painkillers is at epidemic levels in the United States — about 80 percent of the world’s painkilling medication is consumed here, despite the U.S. being only 4 percent of the world’s total population. Over 20,000 people a year die from opiate overdoses, making it one of the leading causes of death — even more than car accidents.

That’s awful.

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And what’s worse, opioids like oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentanyl are approved for use by the FDA, but they’re expensive, and once an addict has exhausted his access or financial resources, they’ll turn to heroin to satisfy their need. In fact, the average heroin user is 23, from an affluent background and got started with painkillers. The government’s response to the problem is to enforce blanket policies that restrict access to painkillers and punish addicts harshly for using.

The real attention needs to be on how to help them rather than punish them. The shame is strong with drug use, making people less likely to be honest and open about needing help, so they hide and continue down a dangerous path that often leads to death.

Yet, we’re surprised every time someone else dies of an overdose.

It’s time we start talking about — and finding solutions to — opiate addiction. That’s the only way we’re going to turn the tide. Otherwise we’re looking at a future where it becomes the leading cause of death, with a path of destruction that ruins not only the addict’s life, but also the lives of their family, friends and those in their communities.

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