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10 Years After Heath Ledger’s Death, The Opioid Epidemic Rages On

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When Heath Ledger died, the headlines blamed “prescription drug overdose.”

It sounded so generic, so anodyne, like something Big Pharma flacks had cooked up to downplay something more ominous in the making. “Prescription drug overdose” sounded like a simple mishap, as if Ledger had grabbed the wrong bottle out of the medicine cabinet or taken three pills instead of two. The Australian actor was found dead in his bed in Manhattan on Jan. 22, 2008. The cause: acute intoxication due to a combination of prescription drugs, including oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam and alprazolam. He was 28 years old.

At the time, the whole concept of prescription drug overdose mystified most Americans. Because really, how could a patient overdose on medication prescribed by their doctor? Adding to the confusion was the man himself. Ledger wasn’t a track-marked street junkie or a rail-thin rock star. Ledger looked like he was bursting with health and youth. And his career was blossoming ― “The Dark Knight” was just months away from opening in theaters.

We didn’t know what it was, yet, but for many of us, Ledger’s death felt like something new.

Today is the 10-year anniversary of Ledger’s death. You don’t hear the phrase “prescription drug overdose” as often. When the coroner released the results of musician Tom Petty’s autopsy last Friday, they called his death an “accidental drug overdose.” Politicians, medical professionals and the media regularly refer to the “opioid epidemic,” and they’re beginning to realize there’s little difference between oxycodone and heroin.

We’ve learned a lot in the years since Ledger’s passing, in part from bearing witness to the long list of other celebrities who died with legal and illegal drugs in their systems. Some of the bigger names include Michael Jackson (2009, propofol and alprazolam); Whitney Houston (2012, cocaine, alprazolam and muscle relaxers); “Glee” star Cory Monteith (2013, heroin and alcohol); Philip Seymour Hoffman (2014, a mix of heroin, cocaine, alprazolam and amphetamines); Prince (2016, fentanyl); and Petty (2017, fentanyl, oxycodone and alprazolam).

For close observers, the pharmacopeia of this grim tally contained clues as to the nature and evolution of the opioid epidemic. Most of these celebrity deaths underscored the fact that drug combinations are particularly deadly, especially those involving alcohol or alprazolam (commonly known as Xanax). We learned drug users like Monteith and Hoffman were switching from prescription opioids, such as oxycodone, to street drugs ― an economic choice driven by both the scarcity of pills due to increased regulation and the availability of cheap heroin. With Prince’s death in 2016 and the news of Petty’s autopsy results, we learned the most lethal overdose threat was fentanyl, an opioid so potent paramedics worry about getting even a trace of it on their fingers.

How could a patient overdose on medication prescribed by their doctor?

For some experts, Ledger’s death served as an alert to an epidemic already underway. Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. rose from fewer than 17,000 in 1999 to more than 36,000 in 2007. According to the International Narcotics Control Board, the U.S. consumed 83 percent of the global supply of oxycodone in 2007 and 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone. Ledger died with those drugs in his system ― painkillers that were largely unused or even banned elsewhere in the world.

But in many ways, the epidemic was just getting started when Ledger died.

Take the American Pain clinic. A week or so after Ledger’s death, a couple of young felons opened a cash-only, walk-in pain clinic near Fort Lauderdale. They hired doctors who prescribed massive quantities of opioids to drug addicts, many of whom traveled from Appalachian states to Florida to load up on oxycodone and Xanax. Local police watched helplessly as American Pain became the biggest pain clinic in the country. The king of the pill mills. A place where the doctors wore guns under their white jackets. Where “patients” in withdrawal regularly went into seizures in the waiting room. Where cash flowed in so fast, the owners ditched their cash registers and stuffed the money into trash cans.

I wrote about the rise and fall of American Pain in my eponymous 2015 book. But even the guys who’d juiced the opioid epidemic by jump-starting the Florida pill mill industry had no idea what they were getting into. They told me they were blown away by the thousands of addicts and dealers who lined up for doctors’ appointments. By how far they drove to score drugs. By their desperation. Everyone else seemed astonished and ill-prepared as well, from lawmakers, to doctors, to the Drug Enforcement Administration and to drug users, themselves. The power of this addiction wave caught many by surprise.

Even four years after Ledger’s death, when I began my research, I felt like I’d stumbled into largely undiscovered territory. News coverage of the epidemic was patchy. Few books or major documentaries had tried to explain it. Cops and paramedics and judges and drug counselors were overwhelmed, but nobody seemed to have connected the dots.

Now, in 2018, we know. We hear about doctors who overprescribe to patients. About everyday people who are struggling. About how those in genuine need of pain medication now have difficulty getting their prescriptions due to more rigorous prescribing and dispensing practices. Last week, I conducted a LexisNexis search of the terms “prescription drug abuse” or “opioid.” In 2007, the year before Ledger died, 741 newspaper stories in the database mentioned one or both search terms. For 2017, the same search returned 42,456 stories.

Heath Ledger would have turned 39 years old this April. His and other celebrity deaths have expanded our awareness of this still-growing problem. These days, when we hear about an entertainer ― or a neighbor, or a colleague, or a loved one ― dying before his or her time, our minds automatically flash to accidental overdose and opioids. I used to think knowledge alone would automatically subdue this epidemic. That hasn’t happened yet. Awareness of prescription drug abuse is rising, but so are overdoses, which killed about 64,000 Americans in 2016, up from 34,450 in 2008.

Unfortunately, that’s another lesson we’ve learned in the decade since Ledger’s death. Once created, many addictions persist. And there’s usually not a Hollywood ending.

John Temple is an investigative journalist and author of American Pain. He is a professor of journalism at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media. 

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Leading German Far-Right Figure Ditches Party, Converts To Islam

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A leading member of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany party, known for lamenting “Islamization” of the country, has stepped down following his conversion to Islam, according to multiple reports.

Arthur Wagner resigned from his position in the German state of Brandenburg on Jan. 11 for “personal reasons,” party spokesman Daniel Friese said Wednesday. Friese added that the party has no issue with Wagner’s decision.

It’s unclear what prompted Wagner’s religious conversion. Alternative for Germany, or AfD, rose to prominence beginning in 2015 with the influx of refugees and migrants into Europe. The party worked to appeal to mainstream Germans by stoking fear of a cultural overhaul and a threat to the German lifestyle.

“What they’ve done is create this extraordinary newspeak where all of their positions are justified in terms of liberal arguments about right to an identity, right to a separate culture ― arguments about how far a Western culture can absorb a non-Western culture,” Roger Griffin, an expert on fascism and modern history at Oxford Brookes University, told HuffPost last year.

The party was voted into Germany’s Bundestag, or parliament, for the first time in last year’s elections. It’s promoted policies like the repatriation of 500,000 Syrian refugeesliving in Germany, claiming the Syrian civil war is almost over.

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Brazilian Court Upholds Lula’s Corruption Conviction

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PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil, Jan 24 (Reuters) – A Brazilian appeals court upheld the corruption conviction of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Wednesday, a major blow to the plans of the country’s most influential politician to run for the presidency again this year.

The first two of three judges voted to uphold Lula’s convictions on taking bribes and money laundering and agreed with the prosecutors’ request to lengthen the prison sentence of Brazil’s first working-class leader, who remains free pending future appeals.

Lula, 72, could now be ineligible to stand for election under Brazil’s “Ficha Limpa” or “Clean Record” law, which bans political candidates whose convictions are upheld by an appelate court. However, an electoral court must make the final ruling on a candidacy, and would only do so once a candidate had registered.

Lula can appeal Wednesday’s decision to higher courts to delay a final decision, possibly avoiding jail and stringing the process out long enough to register his candidacy by the Aug. 15 deadline.

Lula is one of scores of powerful politicians and businessmen caught up in sweeping corruption probes that have wracked the Brazilian establishment since 2014.

His exclusion from the election would radically alter the political landscape ahead of a campaign in which Lula is the early favorite, with 36 percent of voter preferences according to pollster Datafolha. That is double the percentage of his nearest rival, the far-right congressman and former army captain Jair Bolsonaro, who has been energized by anti-Lula sentiment.

Brazil’s benchmark Bovespa stock index has risen 8 percent so far this year, propped up by expectations Lula will be barred from the election, clearing the way for a more market-friendly candidate who would stick to Brazil’s austerity agenda.

The Bovespa hit an all-time high on Wednesday as the first of three judges on the court began reading his decision, dismissing a series of arguments presented by Lula’s lawyers.

Brazil’s currency, the real, firmed 1.6 percent against the U.S. dollar, leading gains in Latin America.

MORE CASES

Lula faces six other indictments in corruption cases ranging from receiving bribes from engineering firm Odebrecht to obstructing justice and trafficking his influence to obtain government decisions favoring the auto industry. He is among over 100 people convicted in the “Car Wash” investigation, the most sprawling of Brazil’s numerous probes, focused on graft involving oil firm Petroleo Brasileiro and other state-run companies.

Speaking at a union rally on the outskirts of Sao Paulo on Wednesday, Lula told the crowd, “I committed no crime.”

“The only fair decision today would be a 3-0 ruling that I was wrongly convicted and sentenced,” Lula said

BEACHSIDE APARTMENT

Lula was convicted of corruption and money laundering last year for accepting a beachside apartment from an engineering firm vying for contracts with the state oil company known as Petrobras.

Prosecutors said the apartment and its refurbishing was a bribe worth 3.7 million reais ($1.1 million). Lula maintains he never owned the penthouse apartment, criticizing prosecutors for relying on the plea bargain testimony of one witness, businessman Leo Pinheiro.

“His word is not enough to incriminate Lula,” Lula’s lawyer Cristiano Zanin told the appeals court.

(Writing and additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Additional reporting by Bruno Federowski in Brasilia and Pablo Garcia in Sao Bernardo do Campo; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Andrew Hay)

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Trump Threatens To Pull Aid To Palestinians If They Don’t Pursue Peace

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DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump threatened on Thursday to withhold aid to the Palestinians if they did not pursue peace with Israel, saying they had snubbed the United States by not meeting Vice President Mike Pence during a recent visit.

Trump, speaking after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the World Economic Forum, said he wanted peace. However, his remarks could further frustrate the aim of reviving long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Palestinians shunned Pence’s visit to the region this month after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and vowed to begin moving the U.S. embassy to the city, whose status is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Trump’s endorsement in December of Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its capital drew universal condemnation from Arab leaders and criticism around the world. It also broke with decades of U.S. policy that the city’s status must be decided in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

“When they disrespected us a week ago by not allowing our great vice president to see them, and we give them hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and support, tremendous numbers, numbers that nobody understands ― that money is on the table and that money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace,” Trump said.

The United States said this month it would withhold $65 million of $125 million it had planned to send to the U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees. The UNRWA agency is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from U.N. states and the United states is the largest contributor.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the United States had taken itself “off the table” as a peace mediator since it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“Palestinian rights are not up to any bargain and Jerusalem is not for sale. The United States can’t have any role unless it retreats its decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah told Reuters by phone from Jordan.

Abbas has called Trump’s Jerusalem declaration a “slap in the face” and has rejected Washington as an honest broker in any future talks with Israel. Abbas left for an overseas visit before Pence arrived.

Abbas has said he would only accept a broad, internationally backed panel to broker any peace talks with Israel. The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley also criticized Abbas.

Israel’s government regards Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the country, although that is not recognized internationally. Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Speaking in Davos, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said only the United States could broker a peace deal.

“I think there’s no substitute for the United States. As the honest broker, as a facilitator, there’s no other international body that would do it,” Netanyahu said.

Trump said Palestinians had to come to the negotiating table.

“Because I can tell you that Israel does want to make peace and they’re going to have to want to make peace too or we’re going to have nothing to do with them any longer,” Trump said.

Trump said his administration had a peace proposal in the works that was a “great proposal forPalestinians” which covers “a lot of the things that were over the years discussed or agreed on”, without providing specifics.

Trump said his declaration on Jerusalem took it off the negotiating table “and Israel will pay for that”, adding “they’ll do something that will be a very good thing” without elaborating.

Earlier at the World Economic Forum, Jordanian King Abdullah said Jerusalem had to be part of a comprehensive solution.

He said Trump’s decision had created a backlash, frustrating Palestinians who felt there was no honest broker.

But he added: “I’d like to reserve judgment because we’re still waiting for the Americans to come out with their plan.”

King Abdullah’s Hashemite dynasty is the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, making Jordan particularly sensitive to any changes of status there.

The last talks collapsed in 2014, partly due to Israel’s opposition to an attempted unity pact between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, and because of Israeli settlement building on occupied land that Palestinians seek for a state, among other factors.

Palestinians want the West Bank for a future state, along with East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Most countries consider as illegal the Israeli settlements built in the territory which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Israel denies its settlements are illegal and says their future should be determined in peace talks.

The United States has said it would support a two-state solution if the Israelis and Palestiniansagreed to it.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in RAMALLAH, Ari Rabinovitch in JERUSALEM, Michelle Nichols at the UNITED NATIONS and Noah Barkin and Dmitry Zhdannikov in DAVOS; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Mark Bendeich)

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