Prince reportedly had a legal drug that's killing more Americans than heroin on him when he died


Authorities who are investigating Prince's death found opioid painkillers on him and in his Paisley Park home.


Drug enforcement officials haven't yet found any sign that Prince had a valid prescription for the drugs, which, despite having effects similar to heroin, are legal when authorized by a physician, CNN reports.

Both heroin and opioid painkillers belong to a larger class of drugs known as opioids. It includes legal, lab-produced drugs like oxycodone, fentanyl, and morphine as well as illegal drugs like heroin.

Research suggests the drugs are widely overprescribed, yet deadly: Between 2013 and 2014, overdose deaths from opioid painkillers and heroin jumped 14%, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released in December 2015.

The most commonly prescribed opioid painkillers include drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone. Those were involved in more overdose deaths than any other type of the drug, the CDC report found.


How opioids affect the brain

Prescription painkillers act on the same brain systems that are affected by heroin and morphine. These brain systems function as a sort of lock-and-key mechanism that activate our sense of pleasure and reward. We all have a series of naturally-produced keys and keyholes that normally fit together to switch on this reward system - it's the reason we feel good when we eat a good meal or have sex, for example. But opioids mimic the natural keys in our brain. When they click in, we feel an overwhelming sense of euphoria.

In her new book "Unbroken Brain," neuroscience writer Maia Szalavitz describes the feeling of using heroin as similar to being wrapped in a warm, loving hug:

It was complete satisfaction ... The physical sensation was like being hit hard with something infinitely soft, warm, comforting, enveloping. Every molecule of my body felt nurtured. I was home.

The link between heroin and painkillers is strong: According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, close to half of young people surveyed in three recent studies who'd injected heroin said they'd abused prescription painkillers before they started using heroin. A report released in July found that people who'd abused opioid painkillers were 40 times as likely to abuse heroin compared with people who had never abused them.

So, while the drugs can be immensely helpful at providing some relief to people in severe, unrelenting physical discomfort from an injury or medical condition, it's not hard to see why they can also be incredibly dangerous, especially in people who may be vulnerable to addiction.

And even in people who are not at risk of addiction, abusing the drugs can have deadly consequences: overdosing on heroin can slow and even stop breathing, leading to brain damage or coma.


Investigators still don't know if these drugs played any role in Prince's death; they are still awaiting the results from his autopsy and toxicology tests.