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Jim Carrey Lawsuit Shines Light On Prescription Drug Addiction in U.S.

Drug use in Hollywood is under a microscope again amid a new lawsuit against actor Jim Carrey.
Image: Jim Carrey
Actor Jim Carrey, center, joins mourners behind the coffin of his ex-girlfriend Cathriona White as they walk to Our Lady of Fatima Church in her home village of Cappawhite, Ireland, ahead of her funeral on Oct. 10, 2015. AP Photo / AP

Drug use in Hollywood is under a microscope again amid a new lawsuit that claims actor Jim Carrey used his "immense wealth and celebrity status" to illegally obtain and distribute potentially deadly substances to his girlfriend Cathriona White, who died of a suicidal overdose at age 30 last year.

White's estranged husband, Mark Burton, filed the suit Monday in Los Angeles. The suit also alleges that Carrey used the false name "Arthur King" to procure the pills. The suit also claims that the “drugs that caused White’s death … all came from three pill bottles found near her body bearing the name ‘Arthur King.’”

“Mr. Carrey did so despite the fact that he knew full well that Ms. White was ill equipped to ingest and manage highly additive prescription drugs outside the care of a licensed physician; was prone to depression; and had previously attempted to take her own life,” the lawsuit said.

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Carrey has vehemently denied the allegations. “I will not tolerate this heartless attempt to exploit me or the woman I loved. Cat’s troubles were born long before I met her and sadly her tragic end was beyond anyone’s control," he said in a statement. “I really hope that some day soon people will stop trying to profit from this and let her rest in peace.”

No matter the resolution of the case, the fact remains that Hollywood has a long history of stars who have either developed an addiction or lost their lives due to the abuse of prescription pills.

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Prince, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse and Heath Ledger all struggled with drug addiction or lost their lives as a result of overdose.

Dr. Deni Carise, the Recovery Centers of America’s chief clinical officer, told NBC News that celebrities are steeped in the same epidemic plaguing the rest of the country. America accounts for roughly 5 percent of the world's population, but 80 percent of its opioid users. Stars just have better access and are under more pressure to maintain a rigorously cultivated public persona.

Related: Commentary: Why Prince's Death Shouldn't Lead to Bad Drug Policy

"It's easy for a celebrity to get a great car or the best house. And it's easy to get the best drugs," she said. "They have people around them who tend not to confront bad behavior; everything is done for them very quickly."

Carise also believes the crisis ratcheted up in the last five to eight years, when she said physicians started over-prescribing medications to treat chronic pain, while under-estimating the potential addictive effects.

Despite a rash of preventable deaths in just the last decade, there doesn't appear to be a significant change in celebrity culture, which often prizes looking fit and healthy over actual wellness.

It remains to be seen whether this case will provide a cautionary tale. It can be either dismissed as part of what Carise calls part of "America's insatiable demand to watch the trainwreck" or become a catalyst for addicts to seek out the same substances. Meanwhile, Dr. Carise claims a "small subset" of doctors make their living by "selling prescriptions."

Ethical doctors are also often caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to relieving pain.

"We’re rated on whether we treat the patient's pain, and we're in a tough position because we’re treating something that’s subjective," said Dr. Tyeese Gaines, medical director and chairman of the emergency department at the Landmark Medical Center in Rhode Island. "You want to believe your patient and you don’t want to deny them something that is going to ease their suffering."

Related: Obama Pushes For More Treatment for Opioid Addiction

And while some clinics are creating policies to give doctors more autonomy in terms of how they treat chronic pain, according to Gaines, patients can sometimes find someone else to prescribe what they want since it's up to a doctor's discretion.

The Obama White House has called on Congress to fund a $1.1 billion initiative to raise awareness of prescription opioid and heroin addiction. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has said she will instruct the U.S. attorneys she oversees to coordinate and share information across state lines to improve enforcement, while also putting a priority on treatment. The CDC has also recently released new guidelines for opioid prescription. And now nearly every state has registries (PDMPs or Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs) to keep track of any time a doctor prescribes a controlled substance.

According to Carise, more treatment and better education of medical professionals is the key to fighting this problem. The other piece of the puzzle, though, may be the black market for opioids, which is still booming.

"Anyone can get their hands on opioids now," she said, "You can just Google it."

"I have patients that are not celebrities who have access to prescription medications and they did not get them from a physician," added Gaines.

Art Way, the senior director of national criminal justice reform strategy at the Drug Policy Alliance, argues that the entire way our society approaches this issue needs to be upended in order to stop the cycle of addiction and overdose.

"In Hollywood, these situations get a lot more press, but it’s a day-to-day problem throughout our society," he said.

Still, some see room for optimism amid the torrent of troubling headlines. Dr. Mitra Ahadpour, a veteran primary care physician and the division director for pharmacologic therapies at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, has been impressed by what she calls the Department of Health and Human Service's "multi-pronged" approach so far.

"We are making a dent. People are becoming more educated," she said. In the short term, Ahadpour said that Americans with legitimate opioid prescriptions need to stop sharing them. Research has shown that a common source of addictive pain medications is often a friend or relative.

It's important for the public at large to remain patient with people struggling with abuse.

"There is a timeline for everyone," said Ahadpour, who recently spent time with recovering addicts in downtown Baltimore and confirmed: "They're living wonderful productive lives right now."