Elvis Presley was really an undercover federal narcotics agent. That is according to one urban legend that just won’t go away. The truth is Elvis wanted a badge from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and President Richard Nixon was more than happy to give him one by making the King of Rock ’n’ Roll an honorary officer in the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The badge carried no authority, but it paved the way for an iconic photo of Elvis shaking Tricky Dick’s hand in the Oval Office.
There is some irony in the story now that we know of the demons Elvis faced at the time. The King was himself a drug addict, although he wouldn’t have seen it that way. Elvis’ medicines were prescribed by a licensed physician. He was not some junkie purchasing dope from a criminal lowlife in a dark alley.
When Elvis died in 1977 at age 42, the cause of his death was listed as a “fatal heart arrhythmia.” Blood tests, however, showed traces of 14 different drugs in Elvis’ body.
He obtained most of these drugs from his physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos, who wrote 10,000 prescriptions for Elvis in 1977 alone for uppers, downers and assorted narcotics. Dr. Nick, as Nichopoulos was known in Memphis, said he prescribed the drugs because he truly “cared” for Elvis. He continued to practice medicine in Tennessee for years after Elvis’ death.
Following a number of complaints, the Tennessee Medical Board charged him with overprescribing drugs. The board finally stripped Nichopoulos of his medical license in 1995.
Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, told me last week that prescription drugs are quickly becoming this nation’s No. 1 drug abuse problem. In 17 states, more people die from overdoses of prescription drugs than from car wrecks or any other form of accidental death.
Prescription drug abuse has long been a problem in this region, where painkillers have replaced heroin and cocaine as recreation drugs of choice. It is not just a law enforcement issue or public health problem (although those are serious enough). The drug czar (a term Kerlikoswske doesn’t much care for) said prescription drug abuse is also an economic problem that robs employers of a reliable workforce.
He said a company in eastern Kentucky was surprised recently it couldn’t find 500 job applicants who could pass a drug test. Kerlikowske said even after lowering the number of positions to 250, the company still couldn’t meet its quota of qualified job applicants.
Kentucky isn’t alone in this regard. Prescription drug abuse costs Tennesseans millions of dollars annually in inflated health care costs, crowded emergency rooms and lost employee productivity. And it causes people to lie, cheat and steal to score their drugs.
Have you ever been driving along on a local highway and witnessed another motorist doing something incredibly stupid? You probably asked out loud, “What drug is he on?”
Now you know the erratic driver next to you is likely hooked on prescription painkillers.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.