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Whitney Houston death: Sorting out drug history difficult, experts say

February 15, 2012 |  2:29 pm

Whitney Houston in 2005
Experts said it's expected to take time for investigators to sort out Whitney Houston's medical history and prescription drug inventory as they try to determine how the pop star died.

The Los Angeles County coroner's office said Wednesday investigators have asked  "a number" of doctors to provide them with Houston's medical information.

Experts said it could be challenging to build a complete list of a subject's prescription drugs, particularly a celebrity's. Some celebrities use the names of their assistants -- or fake names -- on prescriptions, they said.

L.A. County Sheriff's Sgt. Steve Opferman, who oversees a prescription drug task force but is not involved in the Houston case, said, "Celebrities often get their prescription drugs from doctors who are more than willing to give them what they want and sometimes using members of their entourage."

Opferman also said some people also turn to illegal drugs when their prescriptions run out, placing the new drugs in the old bottles.

Authorities collected several bottles of drugs from Houston's suite at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where she was found dead Saturday. But officials have said the amounts of drugs did not seem unusually large, leaving it unclear whether the medications had anything to do with the singer's death.

Officials are waiting for the results of toxicology tests on Houston's body.

PHOTOS: Whitney Houston, 1963-2012

The Times reported earlier that the coroner was planning to to serve subpoenas on doctors and pharmacists, seeking details about the drugs they found. Now, officials said they have made contact with some doctors.

"We've already contacted a number of doctors with requests for records," Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter told the Associated Press. He stressed seeking the records is common in such cases.

“Subpoena power is one of the wonderful tools an investigator uses to get information from pharmacies and doctors,” added Dave Campbell, a retired captain from the coroner’s office. “You’re primarily seeking documents, not the persons who treated or prescribed, because you are doing a death investigation, not a criminal investigation.”

FULL COVERAGE: Whitney Houston | 1963-2012

Campbell said investigators generally concentrate on the physicians most clearly connected to any prescription drugs recovered or conditions they know about. “You saw a lot of this in the Michael Jackson case and I’m sure it will be useful in this incidence," Campbell added, referring to the death investigation focusing on prescription drugs launched after the singer died in 2009.

He added that investigators would count the tablets in each container and compare them against the date of the prescription to see if the person was taking the correct dosage.

"Sometimes you find other medications inside" the bottles, he said.

Defense attorney Ellyn Garofalo, who won acquittal for a physician charged with over-prescribing drugs to Anna Nicole Smith, said investigators were probably going to be looking at several specific areas.

They will compare the amounts of prescription medications gathered from Houston's room with the amounts of medication that were dispensed. They will look at which pharmacies dispensed the drugs and which doctor or doctors prescribed them. That information could be compared against the prescribing history of one or more doctors who treated Houston.

A red flag would be a single doctor prescribing enormous amounts of medication, Garofalo said.

After Jackson died in 2009, authorities spent months looking at bags full of prescription drugs found at his home. Prosecutors charged his doctor, Conrad Murray, in connection with the star's death.

Investigators will probably also use a state-created database with more than 100 million entries for controlled substances prescribed in California. The database has been used in past cases to determine the amount of drugs patients were receiving and how much doctors were prescribing.


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Photo: Whitney Houston in 2005. Credit: Los Angeles Times.