By Josh Meyer
July 02, 2009
The Los Angeles Police Department's request for federal drug agents to join the investigation of Michael Jackson's death indicates that illegal activity may be suspected in the dispensing of painkillers, sedatives, antidepressants or other medications to the 50-year-old entertainer, according to a law enforcement official.
Some of Jackson's friends, family and confidantes have come forward to say that he was abusing painkillers and other prescription drugs over a long period of time, and that perhaps others in his ever-changing entourage kept him supplied, which could be illegal. The DEA is investigating various possibly related activities, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
The LAPD's request for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to get involved in the case is typical because of its experience and jurisdiction in investigating suspected drug overdoses and other deaths in which the use or abuse of drugs and prescription medication is suspected to have played a role, the official said.
The DEA has the resources and expertise to investigate such cases, including federal drug agents and specially trained "diversion investigators." These investigators don't carry badges or guns, but they investigate pharmacies, doctors and so-called pill mills -- black market storefronts and Internet sites that provide drugs and medication, often bootleg varieties, without regard to obtaining the proper prescription or quality control, the official said. Often, the crimes involve the diversion of legitimate drugs for illegitimate medical purposes, such as supplying addicts with high-strength painkillers like Oxycodone.
Dr. Conrad Murray, a cardiologist with offices in Las Vegas and Houston, was identified by a Jackson advisor as the singer's personal doctor of three years and the man tapped to safeguard his health during the grueling comeback concert series that was supposed to start next month in London.
The law enforcement official said there was no immediate indication that Murray had done anything wrong or that Jackson was getting prescription drugs illegally or inappropriately, including medication he did not need or doses that were too large or administered over too long a period of time. But, he said, "In normal overdose investigations such as this, that's what they're looking for, so it's very possible that that's what they're looking at in this case."
"A lot of drugs, you need a prescription each time you get a refill. They will be looking at sources of [the drug] supply, where are the drugs coming from, are they doing criminal stuff, such as writing many, many prescriptions and having people fill them around town?" the official added.
The DEA will also look into how Jackson's doctors stand with the agency, which requires them to register for the authority to prescribe certain medications, said the official. Also, the DEA will investigate whether those doctors had a "face-to-face relationship" with Jackson, which is required. In a number of cases, the official said, the DEA has found doctors dispensing medications without having diagnosed or even seen the patient, which can be illegal.
A doctors can lose his or her license if found to be improperly or illegally administering medications, especially in cases in which a patient dies or is gravely injured. In extreme cases where death occurs, law enforcement officials said, doctors or other "enablers" can be charged with criminal manslaughter if they obtain or administer medication in a manner that displays a reckless disregard for human life.
Authorities removed prescription drugs and other medical evidence from the Holmby Hills home where Jackson died. A law enforcement source told The Times that Propofol, a powerful anesthetic, was among the drugs recovered.
The law enforcement official said the illegal abuse of prescription drugs has become a serious problem in recent years, and that the DEA has cracked down on pill mills in Florida and elsewhere. Customers usually come to a storefront, pay in cash -- leaving no paper trail -- and purchase drugs and prescriptions of widely varying quality and legality, with some coming from the black market, Mexico, China or the Internet, the official said. Abuse of medications obtained through the Internet is an even bigger and faster-growing problem, the official said.
"The problem is growing; prescription drug abuse in all of these ways, shady doctors, diversion [of drugs] from overseas, pill mills, online pharmacies, forgery, pharmaceutical theft, multiple prescriptions from doctors to separate pharmacies," the official said. "Doctors are not the biggest problems; the Internet is No. 1," in which people get prescription drugs from fly-by-night companies that operate under, or outside of, the DEA's radar.