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By Lanny Swerdlow, R.N.

Prescription pharmaceuticals caused the death of between 14,000 and 27,000 Americans every year for the past 20 years. One of the mos





By Lanny Swerdlow, R.N.

Prescription pharmaceuticals caused the death of between 14,000 and 27,000 Americans every year for the past 20 years. One of the most tragic high-profile deaths from prescription pharmaceuticals was actor Heath Ledger.

Ledger’s death in January galvanized the public’s attention, but the underlying cause of his death has not been recognized. Insights into this can be found in the Jan. 23 issue of Entertainment Magazine, which prominently featured the posthumously Academy Award-winning actor on its cover with an eight-page spread that recounted his life and death.

Not shying away from the circumstances of his death, the article’s authors, Josh Rottenberg and Christine Spines reported “There was immediate speculation he had overdosed on illicit drugs, but autopsy reports ruled his death an accidental toxic combination of prescription painkillers, anti-anxiety medication, and sleeping pills.”

The New York City chief medical examiner’s office determined Ledger died from the combined effects of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine.

What had happened was that the prescription pharmaceuticals that Ledger was taking for pain, mental agitation and insomnia reacted with each other to produce a deadly combination that killed him. Heath Ledger died directly from what was an entirely appropriate use of legal pharmaceuticals prescribed to him by his doctor.

Shining a light on Ledger’s short but extraordinary rise to stardom, the article included personal and poignant stories from many of Ledger’s closest friends and associates. One of them was Terry Gilliam, a close friend and director of The Brothers Grimm, one Ledger’s early starring roles.

Gilliam told of his work and relationship with Ledger, and in commenting on the circumstances of his death stated that “marijuana was no longer in his life, which he had enjoyed a bit.”

Gilliam did not say why he stopped using marijuana, but for some unknown reason he stopped using it even though “he had enjoyed it a bit.” Other than it was illegal, there was no problem associated with his use of marijuana, so why he stopped remains a mystery.

It was a fatal decision.

Documented as far back as 5,000-year-old Chinese physician manuscripts, marijuana was used all over the world for pain relief, mental agitation and insomnia. Your grandparents obtained marijuana at the corner drug store and used it for these exact same symptoms. Today, these symptoms continue to be safely and effectively treated with cannabis by millions of Americans – some legally, most illegally.

Ledger was in pain, suffering from anxiety and insomnia. What are the classic benefits of cannabis? Pain relief, anxiety reduction and a good night’s sleep. Had Ledger not stopped using marijuana, he would not have needed as many, if any, of the prescription pharmaceuticals that killed him. Had Ledger not stopped using marijuana, he would have lived to accept his Academy Award for best supporting actor and would be alive today continuing to make blockbuster motion pictures.
Although Ledger died from a toxic combination of prescription pharmaceuticals, what really killed him were our nation’s marijuana prohibition laws, because his doctor could not prescribe him cannabis. For the ailments that ailed Ledger, his doctor could only prescribe the prescription pharmaceuticals that killed him. Compounding this tragedy is that no one is talking about whether Ledger’s death would ever have occurred, had he not stopped using marijuana.

This is a tragedy that continues to play out every day in the lives of not just celebrities, but in the lives of millions of Americans who have no choice but to use the far more dangerous, generally less effective and arguably more costly prescription pharmaceuticals.

Protecting their bottom line, America’s giant pharmaceutical corporations — along with those other stalwarts of American business, the alcohol and tobacco companies — spend millions of dollar every year hiring lobbyists and providing funds in support of law enforcement’s insatiable feeding frenzy at the taxpayer-funded pig trough of marijuana law prohibition.

Until marijuana is once again restored to its rightful place in our nation’s medicine cabinets, thousands of Americans, like Heath Ledger, will continue to needlessly die every year from prescription pharmaceuticals because they were denied the choice to use marijuana. Millions of others will continue to have their health jeopardized and their lives destroyed because of our nation’s marijuana prohibition laws.

What will it take to get YOU to start doing something, anything, to end this madness?
Lanny Swerdlow, R.N. is director of the Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project, an Inland Empire medical-marijuana patient support group and law reform organization. Contact him at 760-799-2055 or