Prince, Bowie, George Michael...The Most Shocking Drug Culture Icon Deaths of 2016

By Keri Blakinger 12/30/16

From Prince's fentanyl overdose to David Bowie losing his battle with cancer, 2016 has been a rough year.

Carrie Fisher, David Bowie, Prince, Illness and Fentanyl, Deaths in 2016
This year has been a tough one.

In a year notable for its shocking string of high-profile celebrity deaths, it is no surprise that some of those passings were big names in the drug world.

From famous drug culture figures dying of natural causes to reality TV starlets overdosing amid an opioid epidemic, here’s a look at some of the deaths that shocked us in 2016.


Unquestionably, one of the biggest deaths of 2016 was pop icon Prince Rogers Nelson—better known as just Prince.

The 57-year-old flamboyant celeb collapsed in an elevator inside his Paisley Park home and studio on April 21. By the time first responders found him, he’d already been dead for hours.

For months, the exact cause of death became a source of general speculation amid reports that the singer had been treated for overdose six days earlier and was in the process of arranging for treatment to get off prescribed painkillers at the time of his death.

Finally, the medical examiner ruled in June that the “Purple Rain” singer died of a fentanyl overdose. Two months later, reports surfaced indicating that pills stashed at Paisley Park were mislabelled as hydrocodone when they in fact contained fentanyl, a much stronger synthetic opioid.

The megastar’s accidental overdose during a growing opioid crisis could have implications for the policing and prescription of drugs legitimately needed for chronic pain, as some experts have worried.

But for now, the world just mourns the man with the “Little Red Corvette.”

David Bowie

Once a stereotypically hard-partying rock star, British music icon David Bowie died not from drugs but from cancer.

Though the last four decades of his life were a sober success story, back in the '70s the cocaine craze brought Bowie to his knees.

In his late 20s, the “Space Oddity” singer even contemplated suicide, as the The Fix previously reported.

"I really did think that my thoughts about not making 30 would come true," he said.

"Drugs had taken my life away from me. I felt as though I would probably die and it was going to be all over."

But after gaining custody of his son in the late '70s, Bowie stopped using drugs altogether—and eventually helped other celebs see the light.

"You know, there is a better way here, and it doesn't have to end in despair or in death, in the bottom,” he told Trent Reznor at the height of the Nine Inch Nails frontman’s battle with addiction, according to Rolling Stone.

George Michael

After years of struggling with depression and drug use, '80s teen heartthrob George Michael died peacefully on Christmas Day.

"It is with great sadness that we can confirm our beloved son, brother and friend George passed away peacefully at home over the Christmas period," the singer’s London-based publicist told USA Today in a statement.

After the deaths of his lover and later his mother, Michael spiraled into a deep depression for more than a decade, he told The Guardian in 2005.

He turned to anti-depressants and marijuana for reprieve, but repeatedly landed on the wrong side of the law in the late 2000s.

From 2006 through 2010, he had a string of arrests for drug possession and driving under the influence, but by 2014 he said he’d stacked up some sober time, as The Fix previously reported. In 2015, he checked into rehab for marijuana addiction.

But in the end, it wasn’t drugs or depression that felled the “Faith” singer—it was heart failure.

As the internet pours out its love and grief, it is clear that Michael’s death has been a sobering capstone on an already rough year.

Carrie Fisher

When Star Wars megastar Carrie Fisher died at 60, the New York Times described her as a “damsel who could deal with her own distress.”

That was true both on-screen and off—even amid her struggles with drug use and mental health problems. At 29, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, according to the New York Daily News. The Beverly Hills-born actress went on to speak publicly about her struggles, fighting to end the stigma surrounding mental illness.

“I am mentally ill. I can say that. I am not ashamed of that. I survived that, I’m still surviving it, but bring it on,” she once told ABC News.

She also struggled with drug use—and was not afraid to speak publicly about that, too. In 2010, she shocked Star Wars fans with the admission that she snorted coke on the set of The Empire Strikes Back, according to The Guardian.

“I didn’t even like coke that much. It was just a case of getting on whatever train I needed to get high,” she said.

She made her erstwhile drug use part of a public joke at then-candidate Donald Trump’s expense back in October when she jokingly tweeted that she was an “expert” and the billionaire was “absolutely” a coke head given his rampant sniffling during a presidential debate.

Despite her tongue-in-cheek humor, by the time of her death Fisher had become an icon for recovery and mental health awareness.

Now, as the internet pours out its love and grief, it is clear that Fisher’s passing has been a sobering capstone on an already rough year.

Matt Roberts

A few months after Prince’s overdose death, 3 Doors Down co-founder Matt Roberts apparently suffered the same fate—and the powerful opioid fentanyl may have played a role in both cases.

"I know he had prescription drug addiction. He suffered greatly from anxiety," the guitarist's father, Darrell Roberts Sr., told CNN at the time. "I thought he had beaten it all."

On Aug. 20, the guitarist had just finished prepping for a Wisconsin fundraising concert when he was found apparently passed out in the hotel hallway, Rolling Stone reported. Police knocked on his shocked father’s hotel door just before 9 a.m. to notify him of his son’s death.

The 38-year-old musician was wearing a fentanyl patch and also had prescription pills at the time of his death, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Roberts’ and Prince’s deaths come in the midst of a surge in fentanyl-related deaths nationwide. In Ohio, for instance, fentanyl overdoses shot up by 500 percent from 2013 to 2014, the Huffington Post reported.

Overall, the increase in synthetic opioid overdose deaths has been driven by the spike in fentanyl-related deaths, according to the CDC. In some cases, the drug is cut into heroin, but in other cases it’s added into counterfeit pills sold as weaker opioids.

Howard Marks

Though he was never a household name, pot smuggler Howard Marks was a figure of some small notorious renown. But the Brit’s April passing was not drug-related; he died of cancer.

Born in 1946, the man The Guardian once described as “Britain’s best-known and most charming drug smuggler” graduated from Oxford in 1967 and promptly chose pot-peddling over academia. He laundered money through a boutique and eventually started using British bands’ sound systems to smuggle tons of marijuana into the U.S.

In 1973, he got collared in the Netherlands where he went on the run after he was sprung on hefty bail.

He adopted a string of more than 40 aliases to continue his cannabis-carrying mission during his more than six years at large.

He was finally rearrested in 1980 but was acquitted at trial, in part because he charmed the jury and in part because he’d already pleaded guilty to an earlier charge.

For a time, he settled in Mallorca as he continued his post-prison pot dealings. But then a buddy set him up and he was shipped off to America to do time stateside. After his release, he penned a few books and campaigned ardently for legalization until he was felled by cancer on April 10.


WWE star Joanie “Chyna” Laurer had a cocktail of alcohol and prescription drugs in her system when she overdosed at her California apartment in April.

It was her manager who found the wrestling diva’s body at her Redondo Beach pad.

“I went over there is because she was unresponsive for three days,” Anthony Anzaldo told PEOPLE at the time. “She wasn’t responding to any calls or anything.”

At the time of her death, the 45-year-old was filming a documentary which, according to Anzaldo, was so draining that she’d begun taking sleeping pills and anti-anxiety meds.

An autopsy later showed she had oxycodone, oxymorphone, Valium, a muscle relaxant and a sleeping pill in her system when she died, according to the gossip magazine.

Although her death appears to have been an accidental overdose, the exact circumstances that led up to it received scant attention in the aftermath of Prince’s overdose death.

Nancy Reagan

Infamous in internet memedom for her naively simplistic “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, former First Lady Nancy Reagan died of congestive heart failure in March.

A key piece of the War on Drugs PR campaign, the much-circulated slogan took root after Reagan paid a visit to Longfellow Elementary School in Oakland and a little girl asked her what she should do if offered drugs.

“Just say no,” Reagan responded. That offhand remark turned into a slogan and a movement—one that has not been remembered fondly by history.

“Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug activism was not just silly or ineffectual. It was fundamentally misguided, avowedly intolerant, and unabashedly repressive, promoting violence as a response to peaceful activities that violate no one’s rights,” Jacob Sullum wrote in Forbes.

“It reinforced misconceptions about drug use that shaped public policy for decades, leading to millions of unjustified arrests and prison sentences.”

Valerie Fairman

Photo via Twitter

One of the youngest on this list is former reality star Valerie Fairman, whose apparent overdose death at 23 represented an all-too-typical narrative for 2016.

The erstwhile 16 and Pregnant star was found unresponsive in a friend’s bathroom in the small Pennsylvania town of Coatesville, according to TMZ.

The young mother had checked into five different rehabs over the last five years, her mother told the gossip site. Official cause of death has not yet been declared, pending toxicology reports.

She’d also struggled with legal troubles including charges for resisting arrest and prostitution, the New York Daily News reported.

As the overdose epidemic batters small towns in rural America, Fairman’s Dec. 21 death seems somewhat a tragic sign of the times.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.