When 30-year-old heiress Casey Johnson was found dead in her Hollywood home last week, questions arose about whether prescription drugs may have contributed to her death–as they have in so many other recent high-profile deaths, including Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, DJ AM, Anna Nicole Smith,and possibly Brittany Murphy. But the problem isn’t just among the rich and famous: according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, prescription drugs are the number one cause of fatal overdoses in the U.S. A 2008 survey by the Department of Health and Human Services revealed that painkillers lag just a breath behind marijuana as the most abused drug in the nation, and last month, the Pentagon released a report showing that 20 percent of Marines had abused prescription drugs in the last year.
Yet, prescription drug users often fall outside the parameters of the criminal justice system. Illegal sellers or prescribers can be arrested, but law enforcement agencies tend to prosecute only abusers with a large enough quanity to create a suspicion of sale, says Drug Enforcement Administration spokesperson Meghan McCalla. The allure of no reprimands and easy access makes this rising problem very difficult to contain.