A physician at the U.S. Capitol prescribed a powerful sleep aid for William Rehnquist for nearly a decade while he was an associate justice of the Supreme Court, according to newly released FBI records.
The records present a picture of a justice with chronic back pain who for many months took three times the recommended dosage of the drug Placidyl and then went into withdrawal in 1981 when he abruptly stopped taking it.
Rehnquist checked himself into George Washington University Hospital, where he tried to escape in his pajamas and imagined that the CIA was plotting against him, the records indicate.
Although Rehnquist's drug dependency was publicly known around the time he was hospitalized in 1981, the release of the FBI records provides new details.
Month-long detox effort
The justice was weaned off Placidyl in early 1982 in a detoxification process that took a month, according to the records. The hospital doctor who treated Rehnquist said the Capitol Hill physician who prescribed Placidyl for Rehnquist was practicing bad medicine, bordering on malpractice. Both doctors' names were deleted from the documents before they were released.
The FBI documents were prepared in 1986 when Rehnquist - who began serving on the court on Jan. 7, 1972 - was nominated for chief justice, years after his problems with the drug had ended.
A psychiatrist told the FBI that Rehnquist's family in 1981 noted "long-standing slurred speech which seems to coincide with administration of Placidyl," one FBI interview report stated. The psychiatrist also indicated that Rehnquist's chronic back pain led to his heavy use of such substances as Darvon and Tylenol 3, which the psychiatrist said also played a part in Rehnquist's condition.
An attending physician at the U.S. Capitol detailed Rehnquist's problems with Placidyl for the FBI, saying that prior to his seeing the justice in 1972, Rehnquist was prescribed the drug by another doctor for relief from insomnia. The attending physician told the FBI he continued to prescribe Placidyl for the entire 10-year period that he treated Rehnquist.
Wife's illness coincided with drug use
The physician said that Rehnquist had been prescribed 500 milligrams of Placidyl per evening, but that Rehnquist was actually taking 1,500 milligrams each night. The doctor said this increased consumption may have coincided with Mrs. Rehnquist's illness and treatment for cancer.
Rehnquist had told the physician that he was taking one pill before going to bed and he would take other pills if he awakened during the night.
The physician indicated that he decided to discontinue the drug's use and to try another medication. Rehnquist said the new medication was not strong enough, an FBI interview report stated. The physician said he then prescribed a substitute and then another, at which point Rehnquist went into the hospital.
The hospital doctor who successfully weaned Rehnquist from the drug told the FBI that the toxicity of Placidyl causes blurred vision, slurred speech and difficulty in making physical movements. Once a patient stops taking the drug, the withdrawal symptoms of delirium begin, which is what happened to Rehnquist at the hospital.
The doctor who helped Rehnquist get off the drug said the justice's wife was highly upset and felt that the prescribing physician and the pharmacist who filled the prescription were probably intimidated by such high-ranking officials as Supreme Court justices and senators and probably would have agreed to almost any request.