What Was Elvis Presley's Relationship With Drugs?

Headlines After Elvis' Death
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A timeline of the months leading up to the death of Elvis Presley outlines the singer's hectic concert schedule, punctuated by a hospitalization in Memphis for four days at the beginning of April. The King is touring again by the end of the month, but footage taped during a show on June 19 reveals a man in obvious ill health. Elvis will only live another eight weeks. While many still point to his ​prodigious eating habits and lack of exercise as motivating factors in his death, there is a strong possibility, as stated in his autopsy, that drugs were a major factor as well.

Uppers and Downers

Elvis had tried marijuana and cocaine on at least one occasion, but he felt far more comfortable in the world of legal drugs—medical prescriptions. Elvis' fondness for prescription drugs had begun back in the early 1960s (although at least one confidant claims the singer began by stealing diet pills from his mother, Gladys).

Facing a punishing work schedule set up by his manager, "Colonel" Tom Parker, Presley began to use "uppers" to get him going in the morning and "downers" like barbiturates, sleeping pills, and painkillers to help him relax and sleep at night. Elvis was known to have tried Dilaudid, Percodan, Placidyl, Dexedrine (a rare "upper," then prescribed as a diet pill), Biphetamine (Adderall), Tuinal, Desbutal, Eskatrol, Amobarbital, quaaludes, Carbrital, Seconal, Methadone, and Ritalin.

By the early 1970s, Elvis had come to rely on these pills as necessary paraphernalia for his hectic career, especially since Parker's schedule now had him working like a dog: an average of one show every other day from 1969 until June 1977 and a three-album-a-year schedule for RCA.

Aided by the Medical Community

In order to get these prescriptions, Elvis needed doctors, and there were many in Los Angeles, Vegas, Palm Springs, and Memphis who were happy to help the wealthy star out. When he visited doctors (or dentists), Elvis would almost inevitably talk them into a prescription, usually for painkillers. Eventually, Elvis took to carrying around a copy of The Physician's Desk Reference (an encyclopedia of legal drugs and their uses) so that he knew just what to ask for and, when necessary, which symptoms to fake.

Bad Health and Eventual Death

Elvis actually had near-fatal overdoses at least twice in the 1970s and was admitted to hospitals for "exhaustion"—that is, detoxification.

Another contributing factor to his drug use might have been his troubled marriage to Priscilla Presley. After their divorce in 1973, his addiction worsened. In addition to being hospitalized for overdoses and other health problems, Elvis’ live performances began to suffer. He was also drinking, gaining weight, and had high blood pressure.

Although the official cause of Elvis’ death, at 3:30 p.m. CST on August 16, 1977, was a heart attack, the toxicology report listed 10 different drugs in his system, including codeine, Diazepam, methaqualone (brand name, Quaalude), and phenobarbital. As the report posits, “The strong possibility is that these drugs were the major contribution to his demise.”