Was Elvis Presley addicted to drugs? Did he have a chemical dependence of any kind? Or, was his drug use simply misunderstood? Most Elvis fans have probably found themselves knee-deep in the debate, sometimes siding with those who support the notion that Elvis had a serious problem with prescription medication, and at other times softening their opinions and accepting the idea that Elvis’s drug use was nothing out of the ordinary.
There are also some folks from the “Elvis faked his death” side of the community who believe that Elvis not only faked his death, but also faked his drug addiction, acting the part of the strung-out junkie in his role as an undercover narcotics agent. Or something like that.
So, how do we determine if Elvis Presley met the criteria for clinical addiction to prescription medication? Could we give his close friends and family members, as well as his doctors, a dose of truth serum? Or sit them all in a room under a bright fluorescent light bulb and grill them until they spill the beans? What really went on with Elvis and his alleged drug habit? Who really knows the answers?
As I write in Elvis Decoded, I believe Elvis met the definition of a person who was physically and psychologically addicted to drugs, even though the drugs were supposedly legal and were prescribed by licensed physicians. (Whether the prescriptions were proper is another topic altogether.) It is my opinion, based on the facts and on the analyses of these facts within the broad spectrum of Elvis’s day-to-day life, that Elvis relied on prescription medication to get himself through the day, and through the night, and through the next day and the next night. And so on, and so on.
The root of this addiction is beyond the scope of my research, but I have endeavored to lay out the facts for people so they can make an informed determination of their own as to Elvis’s use of drugs. Is there any particular reason that Elvis fans should be concerned with Elvis’s drug use? Well, no, not really, but as an Elvis fan, researcher, and author, I am very interested in constructing a complete picture of Elvis Presley, which would include his strengths and his weaknesses. So, perhaps, a better understanding of the drug use might lead us to a better understanding of the man.
As I mentioned above, it would be nice to get some of Elvis’s friends and family to open up honestly about Elvis’s drug use, and to some extent, several people have done this over the years. However, we often find that critical commentary about Elvis’s drug use is been met with charges of bias, of revenge, or of spite. That is, a darker picture is painted for reasons other than to simply and honestly describe Elvis’s drug habit. Red West and Sonny West, for example, have been cited as less-than-reliable sources for information because they were, in 1977, a year after being fired from Elvis’s staff (and dismissed outright as friends), out for revenge. Or, rather, that is what many fans believe. We’ve come to a point that if a fan says, “Elvis was not a drug addict,” then this fan must have some hidden agenda for saying that. Likewise, if another fan says, “Elvis was a drug addict,” this fan must also have some motivation for making such a claim. It’s become increasingly difficult to simply have an opinion, because on this topic there are so many variables, and so many ways to interpret the information.
Many fans employ different analytical methods, using different prisms through which to compare the data. But what if we could get some truthful commentary, some statements that allude to Elvis’s drug use and behavior during the latter years of his life? What if these statements were made under oath, under the unstated threat of perjury? What if these statements don’t paint a flattering picture of Elvis during these dark days?
This kind of picture is described by the testimony of Patsy [Presley] Gambill, Billy Smith, and, primarily, Al Strada, as taken during the 1981 criminal trial of Dr. George Nichopoulos (who was charged with over-prescribing). (These tapes were made available to me this past August.) Patsy Gambill was called as a witness for the prosecution; Smith and Strada were called as defense witnesses for Nichopoulos. While the testimony is not earth-shattering, it does give us a clear indication that Elvis’s drug use and behavior during those critical years suggest his drug habit was very serious, and perhaps even more serious than we’ve been led to believe (by those who contend that Elvis was addicted to drugs). These responses to the prosecution’s questions illustrate for us that Elvis was in deep trouble.
The snippets of testimony included here (which comprise just a fraction of the entire testimony) may be as close as we’re going to get in terms of putting anyone under a hot light bulb in a dingy police interrogation room, or handing out sodium pentothal and hoping for some truthful and accurate insights into this critical part of Elvis’s life (and death).
Remember, these statements about Elvis’s drug use and behavior (either direct quotes or information taken from the testimony) were made under oath.
Note: I have added commentary and analysis after “PL.”
Billy Smith Testimony
Tapes 28 and 48, Trial Div-1, 9-30-81 78174 Nichopoulos
Witness information: Elvis Presley’s first cousin; worked for EP 1961 – 1968; again from December 1970 to January/February 1971; again from 1975 to 8/16/77; from 1961 to 1968, Smith primarily handled EP’s wardrobe; from 1975 to 1977, Smith’s job was to help EP, oversee other people on the staff, act as companion; Smith moved to Graceland in 1974, stayed until August 1977. Smith was called as a defense witness.
--Smith said that he and others intercepted as many deliveries of drugs as they could, but if Elvis wanted something, Elvis got it.
PL: This is a key point: “…if Elvis wanted something [drugs], Elvis got it.” We can look at the alleged efforts of Smith, Strada, Nichopoulos, et al, to reduce the amount of drugs that were coming into Elvis’s possession (see below, Al Strada Testimony), and perhaps commend them for at least trying to do something. But, if Elvis was able to get any drugs he wanted, at any time, and he did, in fact, take steps to get drugs that Nichopoulos refused to provide/prescribe (by flying out to California, for example), what do these efforts to limit or control Elvis’s drug use really amount to? These people knew Elvis was getting drugs from other sources. So, Smith intercepts a few bottles of drugs…Elvis just gets the same drugs elsewhere. Did the interception of drugs actually do anything, then, or was it just an empty effort to perhaps clear their collective conscience?
To their credit, these folks also gave Elvis placebos and gave him saline injections in place of other medications. They also reduced the amount of a drugs being injected by squirting some onto the floor without Elvis’s knowledge. I wonder, though, if this may have caused Elvis to increase his dosages, since he was not getting the full effect that was expected from the dosages he thought he was receiving.
--Drugs usually came through the mail; EP was notified if a package was to be delivered.
PL: A person who is not addicted to drugs does not receive drugs shipments through the mail.
--Drug packages did not go through the office.
--EP would hide drugs; also knew that others were trying to intercept drugs.
PL: A person who is not addicted to drugs does not hide his medications.
Patsy Gambill Testimony
Tape 28, Trial Div-1, 9-30-81 78174 Nichopoulos
Witness information: Elvis Presley’s double-first cousin; employed for 20 years as a secretary; handled bills, fan mail, other correspondence. Gambill was called as a prosecution witness.
Q: Are you aware that EP had a drug problem in the later years of his life?
Patsy Gambill: “Uh, didn’t really think so, but yes.”
Q: What made you arrive at this conclusion?
Patsy Gambill: EP was hospitalized several times. In 1975 he was hospitalized to get him off drugs. Gambill paid the pills for the treatment. The bills increased from 1976 to 1977, over the last year or year-and-a-half of Elvis’s life. From 1974 to 1975, and into 1976, the bills slowly increased. During the last year of EP’s life, the bills increased more.
--Gambill testified that over the last few years of Elvis’s life, she was around when Nichopoulos was with EP, and that she never saw Nichopoulos intercept drugs. She also stated that she was not personally aware of placebos, water, glucose, sugar pills, etc., but had heard mention of them.