The Heavy Burden of Drugs that Killed Tom Petty

Tom Petty
(Photo by JStone/

January 19, 2018: The Los Angeles County Coroner released the results of the drug toxicology analysis from the death of rock and roll star Tom Petty, who died last year. His death has now been ruled an accidental drug overdose. The report notes the following drugs in his body at the time of his death:

  • Fentanyl
  • Oxycodone
  • Temazepam
  • Alprazolam
  • Citalopram
  • Acetylfentanyl
  • Despropionyl fentanyl

In October 2017, Petty was found unconscious and not breathing. This burden of drugs resulted in multiple organ failures which ultimately caused his death. While doctors were able to find a pulse when he got to the hospital, there was no brain activity and the decision was made to take him off life support.

After receiving this report, Petty’s family issued a statement that discussed the many injuries and health problems that he was coping with as he made one last national tour with his band. He was being treated for emphysema, heart disease, knee problems and a fractured hip. But he continued to play, supported by the pain medication that made it possible but, in the end, caused his death.

What Are These Drugs He Was Taking?

Let’s go over the list again, in more detail.

The Fentanyl Family

Pills and hands
(Photo by Marko Marcello/Shutterstock)

There were three drugs from the fentanyl family detected in the toxicology test.

Fentanyl: In their statement, Petty’s family said that they knew he had been prescribed fentanyl, a very powerful opioid painkiller, in patch form to help with his pain. A fentanyl patch may be brand named Duragesic.

Despropionyl fentanyl: This is another form of fentanyl with a slightly different molecular shape. It may be packaged in vials for use in medical facilities.

Acetylfentanyl: This form of fentanyl is only found on the illicit market. It is most commonly manufactured in China and then trafficked into the U.S. either directly or via Mexico.

The Benzodiazepines

There were two benzodiazepines in his body.

Alprazolam: Many people know this drug by its popular brand name, Xanax. It is an anti-anxiety medication.

Temazepam: This drug may be brand-named Restoril. It is also an anti-anxiety medication and may be given to help someone sleep.

Oxycodone: This is the pain-relieving ingredient in OxyContin, Roxicodone, Percocet and many other formulas. Like fentanyl, this is a powerful opioid painkiller.

Citalopram: An antidepressant, it may be sold under the brand name Celexa. It is in the same family of drugs as Prozac.

Why Did Petty Stop Breathing?

Six of the drugs in Petty’s body have the effect of making it difficult for a person to breathe.

Tom Petty’s start on Hollywood boulevard
(Photo by Eric Broder Van Dyke/Shutterstock)
(Photo by Northfoto/

Benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants and so suppress a person’s breathing function. Fentanyls are opioids which work in a different way, but also suppress a person’s ability to breathe. Oxycodone is yet another opioid.

In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration issued a very clear and urgent warning about mixing opioids and benzodiazepines because of the risk that a patient combining these drugs could be in danger of an overdose that could stop their breathing.

Also in 2016, the world lost another fine musician, Prince, to an overdose of fentanyl that he may have obtained on the illicit market. Like Petty, Prince suffered from chronic injuries and constant pain resulting from his years performing onstage.

The Coroner’s report answers some questions but also raises some, like these:

What could have prevented Tom Petty’s death? Perhaps close and careful management of his pain by his medical practitioners.

Where did Petty obtain acetylfentanyl, an illicit form of the drug and why did he have it? We may never know. Is it possible his severe and constant pain was not adequately addressed by the medications he got from his doctors? Did he feel the need to find other pain-relieving drugs on the illicit market?

The statement issued by Petty’s family says that he passed after “doing what he loved the most, for one last time, performing live with his unmatchable rock band for his loyal fans on the biggest tour of his 40-plus year career.” While this heavy load of medications enabled him to complete this tour despite injuries that included a fractured hip, it looks like they also took the life of one of our beloved rock and roll icons. Rest in peace, Tom.


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.