What Was Elvis Presley's Relationship With Drugs?

Newspaper headline reports Elvis Presley's 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 hospitalization in Memphis for four days at the beginning of April. By the end of the month, The King is back on the road, touring again.

But footage taped during a June 19 show reveals a man obviously in profoundly 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 Presley's death, the strong possibility exists -- and is supported in autopsy documentation -- that drugs were a major factor as well.

Uppers and Downers

Elvis Presley tried marijuana and cocaine on at least one occasion but felt far more comfortable in the world of legal drugs—medical prescriptions.

Elvis' fondness for prescription drugs started 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, by the early 1970s, Elvis had come to rely on amphetamines ('uppers') to get him going in the morning and barbiturates ('downers') to help him relax and sleep at night.

Parker's schedule 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 record label RCA. Trapped in a years-long unending spiral of production and performance, Presley was known to have taken 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 at any given time during the last few years of his life, simply to help him cope.

Aided by the Medical Community

Elvis needed doctors to obtain these prescriptions, and there was no shortage of Los Angeles, Vegas, Palm Springs, and Memphis physicians more than willing to help out a wealthy star. It's rumored that, at some point, in efforts to discern just what to ask for or which symptoms to fake, Elvis began carrying with him a copy of The Physician's Desk Reference -- an encyclopedia of legal drugs and their uses.

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 suffering 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.