Elvis and Cannabis: Could Marijuana Have Saved the King of Rock and Roll?
Elvis Presley was indisputably the King of Rock and Roll and one of the most significant icons in the history of American pop music. He revolutionized the industry with his rockabilly sound and transcended the stage to the screen with his performances in such films as Love Me Tender and Viva Las Vegas.
Unfortunately, the tale of the King is a rather sad one, fraught with prescription drug abuse, health issues, and failed relationships. His final days were miserable, lonely, and ended with a prescription drug overdose at the tender age of 42 in a most undignified position – face down in a puddle of vomit on the bathroom floor.
What led this musical legend down such a dark path? And, more importantly, could a cannabis intervention have saved the King from his untimely demise?
In order to understand the end, let’s go back to the beginning. Born in 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi, even his birth was a sad affair, when his identical twin brother was delivered stillborn before Elvis entered the world. His childhood was fairly unremarkable – Elvis was teased in school for being a bit of a “mama’s boy” due to his close relationship with his mother, Gladys Love. It’s said that Elvis pilfered diet pills from his mother’s purse in his teenage years for his first taste of amphetamines, which were legal at the time.
Elvis was teased for his taste in “hillbilly” music, but his natural talent and penchant for performing earned him praise and attention in Memphis, where he would perform on Beale Street while rubbing elbows with the likes of B.B. King.
In 1953, a fresh-faced 18 year-old Elvis walked into the offices of Sun Records with the hopes of being discovered. Sam Phillips, a Sun Records producer, did indeed take note of the crooner’s distinctive sound. He hoped to capitalize on “a white man who had a Negro sound and Negro feel,” according to Sun receptionist Marion Keisker, as documented in Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll.
“Elvis the Pelvis” (a nickname he despised) was known for his signature hip-swaying shimmy shake, but the incidental dance move was not the result of cannabis, as one interviewer alleged, but only arose from over-amplified nerves while performing on stage at the Overton Park Shell, as described by Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick. His wide-cut pants emphasized his shaking hips and it caused an uproarious clamoring among the ladies in the audience.
Also dubbed the Tupelo Tornado, Elvis walked the straight and narrow during the early days, content to sing and perform on the road. His only controversy during these formative years were his outrageous hip gyrations and Afro-influenced blues music. A particularly scandalous performance on the Ed Sullivan Show propelled his fame to legendary proportions and cemented his status as the hot new performer on the music scene in the 1950’s.
By 1957, he was a cultural phenomenon, supplementing his career with films like Jailhouse Rock to accompany his musical endeavors. It was during this period that Elvis purchased the mansion that would contribute to his legacy, Graceland, just south of downtown Memphis.
And then everything changed.
In 1958, Elvis was officially inducted into the United States Army, drafted due to his 1-A status as a healthy, able-bodied young man. His fans cried and dubbed the day of the induction, March 24, as “Black Monday.” Elvis was adamant that he be treated the same as any soldier:
“The Army can do anything it wants with me.”
Within months, his mother was diagnosed with hepatitis and her heath rapidly deteriorated. Elvis was granted leave to visit his mother on August 12, but Gladys died just two days later from heart failure. This marked the first devastating blow to Elvis – he and his mother were extremely close and still spoke to each other with baby talk and pet names.
Elvis was sent to Friedberg, Germany, where he was officially introduced to the regular use of amphetamines. It was in West Germany where he met his eventual bride, Priscilla Beaulieu, who was just 14 years old upon their first encounter, although the pair would not marry until after another seven and a half years of courtship.
The King returned to the United States in 1960 after an honorable discharge, but this was the beginning of his fall from glory. His films were panned by critics, despite their commercial success. Elvis performed songs for virtually every soundtrack, but the quality of the songs grew progressively worse with each film.
Priscilla and Elvis were married on May 1, 1967, at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, and their only child, Lisa Marie, was born less than a year later, during a time that proved to be a period of deep depression for Elvis.
Cassandra Peterson, who later played Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, recalled meeting Elvis while working as a showgirl in Las Vegas and spoke of his fervent anti-drug attitude. She mentioned that she had smoked marijuana and he was appalled, telling her, “Don’t ever do that again.” At the time, he rarely drank and was vehemently opposed to recreational drugs, including cannabis.
Elvis was so opposed to recreational drug use that in December of 1970, he met with President Nixon to express his concern about the growing hippie movement and anti-American counterculture, and he asked for a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He used the Beatles as an example of drug abuse in popular culture, which Paul McCartney later said left him feeling “a bit betrayed,” but he was quite aware of the irony behind the statement. “The great joke was that we were taking [illegal] drugs, and look what happened to him,” McCartney pointed out.
In 1971, his marriage on the rocks, Elvis began having an affair with Joyce Bova. By 1972, the pair had separated and eventually divorced, a blow that hit the King hard. He began to have bouts of paranoia, convinced that overexuberant fans who rushed the stage during a show were actually contracted to kill him.
After Elvis's divorce to Priscilla was finalized, he overdosed on barbiturates in 1973 and spent three days in a coma. Elvis had a live-in doctor at Graceland, Dr. George Nichopoulos, who claimed to have written some 10,000 prescriptions for uppers, downers, narcotics, opiates, and barbiturates during the final months of his life.
Elvis became severely addicted to the potent opiate Demerol. Because the drug was legally prescribed, Dr. Nick (not this one) remarked that Elvis felt “he wasn’t the common everyday junkie getting something off the street.”
Eventually, Elvis's onstage persona became increasingly erratic. During one show at the University of Maryland, he slurred his words, clutched the microphone, and was unable to perform due to being in the throes of severe addiction. Elvis's sleep schedule was also erratic – he was unable to sleep more than three or four hours at a time before waking and looking for more pills. Dilaudid, a powerful narcotic, was another favorite of the King's, although Dr. Nick began seeking to restrict Elvis’s access to the drug. It is said that the doctor persuaded Knoll, a pharmaceutical company, to make a special batch of 1,000 Dilaudid pills with no active ingredients.
Alas, in the end, the inert pills could not save the King of Rock and Roll from himself. When he died, he had a lethal combination of drugs in his system, including codeine, ethinamate, Quaaludes, diazepam, amytal, Nembutal, carbrital, sinutab, Elavil, avental, and valmid, as well as an additional barbiturate that was unidentified.
Could cannabis have spared the King of Rock and Roll from his sad, untimely fate? It’s hard to say. Based on personal accounts, Elvis had a fairly addictive and depressive personality. However, he felt justified in using barbiturates because they were legally prescribed by a doctor, while cannabis could only be obtained on the street in the underground black market.
If cannabis had been a legal alternative, it might have been able to help wean him off his dependence on Demerol and Dilaudid. There is growing evidence that cannabis use can help significantly reduce the use of opioids, and if Elvis needed help sleeping, a heavy indica would have been a much safer alternative.
Inevitably, we will never know if cannabis could have altered the course of a very sad tale in the history of rock and roll. But the tale of the Memphis Flash, the Tupelo Tornado, the very King of Rock and Roll will go down in history as a dark lesson on the dangers of so-called “legal” drugs and the deceptive power of perception.