The beloved Foo Fighters drummer reportedly had multiple substances in his system when he died—a stark reminder of the dangers of polydrug use
By Jason Langendorf
The death on March 25 of Taylor Hawkins, longtime drummer for the Foo Fighters, marked the loss of a beloved husband, father and friend, an extraordinary musical talent and the crashing backbeat of a seminal band recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It also marked something more.
Hawkins, 50, was pronounced dead in Bogata, Colombia, where the Foo Fighters were set to perform on their South American tour. Although the Colombia Prosecutor’s Office did not initially provide a cause of death, toxicological tests, according to the Associated Press, preliminarily found “10 psychoactive substances and medicines, including marijuana, opioids, tricyclic antidepressants and benzodiazepines,” in Hawkins’ system.
“Benzodiazepines and opioids both depress respiration, thereby increasing the risk for potentially lethal apnoea. Accumulating data indeed suggest that drugs like benzodiazepines contribute significantly to opioid related fatalities.”—from the Annals of Palliative Medicine
Hawkins had previously made public his past drug use, and this certainly wouldn’t have been the first time a rock star indulged in a cocktail of substances. What stands out about the death of the famous drummer, however, is the co-occurring presence of opioids and benzodiazepines—an exceedingly dangerous combination that, research shows, has become increasingly common in overdose deaths.
Benzos and Opioids
Benzodiazepine, a prescription sedative often used to treat anxiety and insomnia, raises the level of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA in the brain. Some individuals use “benzos”—including diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax) and clonazepam (Klonopin)—as an opioid enhancer. The danger of such a mixture, according to the Annals of Palliative Medicine, is that “[b]enzodiazepines and opioids both depress respiration, thereby increasing the risk for potentially lethal apnoea. Accumulating data indeed suggest that drugs like benzodiazepines contribute significantly to opioid related fatalities.”
According to National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), benzodiazepines were found in 16% of overdose deaths involving opioids in 2019. Additionally, NIDA cited a study of more than 300,000 continuously insured patients who received opioid prescriptions between 2001 and 2013, which found that the percentage of persons also prescribed benzodiazepines rose to 17% in 2013 from 9% in 2001.
Another Musician Lost to Drugs
Polydrug use is hardly limited to musicians. But a culture of drug use and the prevalence of substances in the business, coupled with the rigors of touring, may increase the risk for performers, especially as they age. In the past three years alone, rappers DMX (50) and Shock G (57) and singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle (38) were claimed by polydrug overdose deaths. In 2017, a combination of opioids and benzodiazepines was cited in the overdose deaths of rocker Tom Petty (66) and rapper Lil Peep (21). In Petty’s case, depression, anxiety and insomnia were compounded by a hip fracture that caused him considerable pain when he performed.
“When I started playing this music in the ’60s, everybody did those kind of drugs: the Beatles, the Stones, Hendrix, up and down the block,” Stephen Tyler, lead singer of Aerosmith, told the Los Angeles Times, reflecting on Petty’s death. “We all did that. Take a walk outside your mind. Now, I just surround myself with people who know me. I’ve got good friends who ask me how things are, what I’m up to. We keep tabs on each other. It’s not easy being Tom Petty, being in pain, living the life he did.”