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Drugs kill — while families live in denial



Drugs seem to be, for decades now and as of late, squeezing the life out of people — especially celebrities — at every level.

It's common knowledge now that music legend Michael Jackson died at the age of 50 of an alleged heart attack, and über TV pitchman Billy Mays died shortly thereafter of what appeared to be a heart attack at age 54.

But when news reports of the King of Pop's death from cardiac arrest surfaced, people immediately began speculating that it was drug-related. And in recent days, it has come to light that Mays had cocaine in his system at the time of his death.

Jackson had been treated years before for an addiction to painkillers in a rehab facility. That fact, along with his peculiar behavior and strange appearance, fanned the flames of his alleged drug abuse.

Members of Jackson's family came out in support of him, stating that he was drug-free and did not do drugs. In an interview on the Today Show, brother Jermaine Jackson said that there was no way that Michael was doing drugs because Michael was totally against it. He recently appeared on Larry King Live and said that the last time he had seen his brother, there was nothing out of the ordinary about him.

I thought to myself that there was nothing ordinary about Michael Jackson. Although, I suspect if you spend enough time with someone, then their strange behavior could be perceived as normal.

Jackson's family insisted on a second autopsy to rule out drug use and then a third when evidence arose that Jackson's doctor, Dr. Conrad Murray, may have given him a lethal dose of an illegal drug.

Regarding Mays, an official autopsy report found that cocaine use contributed to the heart disease that "suddenly" killed the TV pitchman. The toxicology tests also showed therapeutic amounts of painkillers hydrocodone, oxycodone and tramadol, as well as anti-anxiety drugs alprazolam and diazepam. Mays suffered hip problems and was scheduled for hip-replacement surgery the day after he was found dead.

Like Jackson's, Mays' family called the findings "speculative" and suggested that an independent autopsy be performed.

Is it just me or are these families in a state of denial? Toxicology is a precise science and it does not lie. Mays had a medicine chest full of drugs in his system. Although the official findings of Jackson's autopsy have been held until further investigation, I would suspect that the same would be true of him. Another autopsy is not going to eliminate those findings.

It is really sad when families reject toxicology reports, particularly because they did not "see" the person doing drugs. I never met Michael Jackson, but I think it's safe to say based on his public behavior, appearance and life choices, something was not quite right with him. I don't know if it was drug-induced or not, but I do know that he was a unique individual who lived under the spotlight in a way that was only upstaged by his death. He is still at the top of the news cycle, and he has been gone for over a month.

When I read about Mays' family's reaction, I was not surprised. If someone came to me and told me that my parent or sibling died from drug use of which I had no "knowledge," I would probably say the same thing -- it's not possible.

But it is possible, particularly among celebrities who live ridiculously busy and stressful lives. Many people can barely handle a 9 to 5 without a drink here or a puff there, so I cannot imagine having to live under such strenuous conditions for extended periods of time. What I can imagine is using drugs to cope, particularly in an industry in which it is clearly easy for celebrities to get them. Why are these families looking outward instead of inward for answers? Can they really say that they saw no signs of drug abuse in Jackson or Mays?

These cases reflect that of Diane Schuler, a mother who was drinking vodka and smoking marijuana while driving a vanload of children home from a weekend camping trip that ended when she went the wrong way on a highway and crashed into an SUV, killing eight people.

Her husband and brother insist that she never used drugs or was a heavy drinker and have asked to have her body exhumed for an independent autopsy. I bet those other seven people, including her child, would say differently. All of the autopsies in the world can't change the fact that these folks were drug abusers ... allegedly.

Instead of denying the obvious, it would be nice if they would acknowledge the truth and use these tragedies as examples of why we should not use illegal drugs or legal drugs illegally. Celebrities and drug culture is out of hand. I don't know about you, but I'm sick of reading about people dying as a result of drug abuse.

Denial won't bring these people back, but the truth may help others move forward and escape a similar fate.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is managing editor of She is an assistant professor of Communication and Media Studies at Goucher College and writes the blog Tune N (, which examines popular culture through the lens of race, class, gender and sexuality.

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