How Xanax, Alcohol May Have Killed Whitney Houston
Whitney Houston at an event in New York City on Sept. 30, 2010. Houston was found dead on Feb. 11, 2012.
May 29, 2012 --
A recently released biography on President Barack Obama details a young Obama's high school days smoking marijuana. The president had previously admitted to using the drug in his 1995 autobiography, "Dreams of My Father." Obama's history of drug use is a past behavior that is certainly still frowned upon, but he is by no means the only president to have a drug history. Find out which other presidents had a history of use, going all the way back to the nation's Founding Fathers.
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Obama's immediate predecessor, former President George W. Bush, had a turbulent drug history before his political career. Bush has maintained a policy of silence around his past youthful indiscretions, other than to say he has been clean since 1974. Reports of his younger days, however, suggest that Bush had a wild lifestyle for a time, indulging in marijuana and even cocaine.
Former President Bill Clinton's entry on this list might need to come with an asterisk. Although the former president had publicly admitted to trying marijuana during his younger days, by his account, he never actually felt its effects. As part of MTV's "Choose or Lose" get-out-the-vote campaign for the 1992 presidential race, the cable network hosted a town-hall style meeting with then-candidate Clinton. When asked whether he had smoked marijuana, Clinton answered he had, but he "didn't inhale."
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President John F. Kennedy, Jr., might have the most complex history with drugs out of any president in U.S. history. Like some 42 percent of Americans today, Kennedy tried smoking marijuana during his younger days, according to an ex-girlfriend who knew him during his college years. In a book released last year, she recounts an incident in which Kennedy lit up while on vacation in Jamaica. Kennedy also took many different prescriptions for a variety of health conditions that he kept secret from the American public. These drugs included "codeine, Demerol and methadone for pain; Ritalin, a stimulant; meprobamate and librium for anxiety; barbiturates for sleep" and more, according to medical records.
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President Franklin Pierce may have had an odd way of motivating men on the battlefield. According to contemporary accounts of Pierce, he used to smoke marijuana with his soldiers during wartime. In fact, during the Mexican-American War, Pierce declared that smoking cannabis was "about the only good thing" about the conflict.
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Long before cocaine was a controlled substance that came with a heavy jail sentence for abusers, it was a legally available and widely used pain reliever. The drug, however, was as addictive then as it is now. Stricken with oral cancer, President Ulysses S. Grant used cocaine throat drops regularly to soothe his pain. In fact, Grant reportedly took cocaine while he wrote his now famous memoirs. He would remain addicted to the drug until the illness claimed his life at age 63.
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Andrew Jackson was another president who openly smoked marijuana on occasion. Like Pierce, Jackson smoked with his troops during wartime, along with tobacco cigars.
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Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and one of the country's Founding Fathers, grew vast fields on hemp of his plantation. In fact, an early draft of the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper, a common material at the time. Whether Jefferson actually smoked his crop is a matter of historical debate. One quote attributed to Jefferson -- "Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see." -- hasn't been found in any of his writings and is likely apocryphal. Jefferson's Farm Book, however, does include references to growing hemp that could indicate he was growing them for purposes of recreational smoking.
George Washington, arguably the most admired figure in U.S. history alongside Abraham Lincoln, was not only a user of marijuana, but a major advocate for the spread of hemp as a cash crop in the United States. Washington grew hemp as a fiber, and even has several journal entries detailing his efforts to grow a better crop. Washington also suffered from tooth pain, and it's believed that he smoked marijuana to bring relief.
Read More: American History
- Whitney Houston was found dead and a drug/alcohol cocktail is suspected as a cause of death.
- Xanax is one of the most-prescribed drugs in the country.
- A combination of Xanax and alcohol can increase the effects on the central nervous system.
While the cause of Whitney Houston's death may not be known for weeks, the 48-year-old singer reportedly had a prescription for Xanax and a history of alcohol and drug abuse, checking into rehab centers at least three times during her career.
Found dead in a bathtub Feb. 11, one prevalent theory for her cause of death is a drug/alcohol combination overdose.
Toxology reports can take weeks to complete, but it is known that a combination of Xanax and alcohol can be deadly, said Dr. Marvin Seppala, chief medical officer at Hazelden, a preeminent treatment center for alcohol and other drug addiction.
The anti-anxiety drug alprazolam, the generic name for Xanax, is classified as a benzodiazepine. Benzodiazepines are sedatives that work by binding to part of the brain's natural tranquilizers, or gamma amino butyric acids, to increase your natural calming ability.
They work quickly, often in 15 minutes -- and are highly addictive. The effects last just a few hours. Alprazolam is also the eighth-most prescribed drug in the United States in 2010, according to the New York Times.
"It's often used for stage fright or other types of anxiety; however, it's abused a great deal and has the potential for addiction," Seppala said, especially if someone has a genetic predisposition for addiction. "Tolerance develops quickly if it's used on a regular basis."
When mixed with alcohol, the anti-anxiety drug's effects can be intensified, resulting in greater intoxication. Another risk, though, is respiratory depression. Both substances can cause your heart rate to slow and impair your breathing, putting those who overdose at risk of death.
The combination of alcohol and benzodiazepines have a calming function in the brain, slowing down some of the brain's functions, Seppala said.
"They cause the control mechanism of the respiratory system to slow down and ultimately stop," he said.
Most patients checking in for rehab from the drug fall into two groups, Seppala said:
"One group never uses it addictively, but needs help getting off because they've built up tolerance," he said. "The other group is mixing it with all kinds of other stuff: opiates, marijuana, alcohol, and that complicates the withdrawal and the whole picture."
The longer Xanax and similar drugs are taken, the less effective they become. Withdrawal effects are unpleasant, including headaches, insomnia, depression -- and more nervousness.
Abuse of alprazolam has become so rampant and demand for the drug so high that a clinic in Louisville, Ky., decided to stop writing new prescriptions for the drug last September. And in 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an 89 percent increase in emergency room visits nationwide related to non-medical benzodiazepine use between 2004 and 2008.
The increase in Xanax prescriptions, Seppala said, can be attributed to patients expecting medication and doctors being willing to hand it out.
There are better medications for stage fright, Seppala said.
"There's a type of antihypertensive beta blockers that are non-addicting and reduce anxiety," he said. "They're used for performance anxiety; for example, when a cellist or violinist who plays great in practice but develops a slight tremor on stage because of anxiety."
Houston had been hoping to revive her career this year with a possible comeback album, the New York Times reported. In the days before her death, her behavior appeared erratic, wearing mismatched clothes with wet hair and bursting on the set of a television interview with Clive Davis. Slurred speech and behavior often associated with being drunk are also typical of high doses of Xanax, Seppala said.
"I know there are reports that she maybe was drowned, or did she overdose, but we won't make a final determination until all the tests are in," said Ed Winter of the Los Angeles coroner's office at a news conference on Sunday.