USA: Overdose Deaths – What Drugs are Killing People?

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Drug overdoses
killed 72,306 Americans last year

The US government does not track death rates for every drug, but the National Center for Health Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collect information on many commonly used drugs. CDC has a searchable database, Wonder, from which these numbers come. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has graphed them to help the public see what a serious problem our nation faces. We reproduce them here to help spread the word.

Not all of these deaths are due to opioids, as later graphs below will show. Each graph contains a yellow and orange line indicating female (yellow) and male (orange) deaths. The lines end in 2016 because 2017 data are provisional. They will be finalized later this year.

Total drug-related deaths have increased 3.1-fold since 2002.

See total series here.

Opioid overdoses
killed 49,068 Americans last year

Some 49,068 Americans died from opioid overdoses last year. These numbers include opioid painkillers, heroin, and illicit opioid synthetics, primarily fentanyl.

Note: These charts are not mutually exclusive so they cannot be summed.

See total series here.

Overdoses from synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, killed 29,406 Americans last year.

These overdose deaths are up by one-third in just one year (from 2016 to 2027). There has been a 22-fold increase in synthetic opioid deaths since 2002.

Note: These charts are not mutually exclusive so they cannot be summed.

See total series here.

Heroin overdoses
killed 15,958 Americans last year

This is a 7.6-fold increase since 2002.

Note: These charts are not mutually exclusive so they cannot be summed.

See total series here.

Cocaine overdoses
killed 14,556 Americans last year

Since 2010, cocaine deaths have increased 3.5-fold.

Note: These charts are not mutually exclusive so they cannot be summed.

See total series here.

Benzodiazepine overdoses
killed 10,684 Americans last year.

From 2002 to 2016 there was an 8-fold increase in benzodiazepine overdose deaths.

Note: These charts are not mutually exclusive so they cannot be summed.

See total series here.

New wave of complex street drugs
puzzles emergency doctors.
Study may fuel need for
more comprehensive drug testing in hospitals.
Researchers set out in 2016 to identify the kinds of illicit drugs causing overdoses in patients presenting at the University of Maryland Medical Center Midtown Campus in Baltimore and the University of Maryland Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly, a suburb of Washington. The researchers, from the Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR), were generating reports about patterns of drug use in the criminal justice system and they decided to apply their technique to hospitals.

At the time, emergency department physicians at the two hospitals were dealing with an increase in accidental overdoses and deaths they thought were caused by the synthetic marijuana product called K2 or Spice. Working with these doctors, the researchers analyzed de-identified urine specimens and linked them to de-identified patient medical records at the two hospitals. The urine specimens were tested for 26 synthetic cannabinoids, 59 designer drugs, and 84 other illicit and prescription drugs.
“’We were thoroughly amazed that in a study where we thought everyone was having a synthetic cannabinoid-related problem, only one specimen tested positive for synthetic cannabinoids,’ says principal investigator Eric Wish, PhD, Director of CESAR at the University of Maryland, College Park, College of Behavioral & Social Sciences.”

About a year later, the lab expanded its tests for synthetic cannabinoids from 26 to 46 metabolites, but only a quarter of the samples tested positive for synthetic cannabinoids, much smaller than anticipated.

Marijuana was the most common individual drug detected in the urine specimens. From a fifth to a third of specimens at each hospital also tested positive for a new substance other than synthetic cannabinoids. Two thirds of patients at both hospitals tested positive for multiple substances; some specimens contained as many as six different kinds. After marijuana, fentanyl was the drug most frequently present in Baltimore specimens while PCP was the second-most frequent substance in specimens in Cheverly.

The researchers conclude that drug use is a much more complex problem than previously thought.

Read Science Daily article here. Download full report here.

America’s Invisible Pot Addicts
More and more Americans are reporting near-constant
cannabis use, as  legalization forges ahead.

The number of adults with a marijuana-use disorder has doubled since the early 2000s, and the number who consume pot daily or near-daily has increased nearly 50 percent. This worries public health officials concerned about “increasingly permissive cannabis legislation, attitudes, and lower risk of perception,” as well as “increasingly potent options available, and the striking number of constant users.”

Users or former users describe “lost jobs, lost marriages, lost houses, lost money, lost time. Foreclosures and divorces. Weight gain and mental-health problems,” writes the author of this article in The Atlantic. Perhaps the biggest problem for such users is having to convince others that the problems they are suffering result from their marijuana-use disorders.

Experts worry that the way states are regulating legal marijuana invites such problems. Says Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, “’Here, what we’ve done is we’ve copied the alcohol industry fully formed, and then on steroids with very minimal regulation. The oversight boards of a number of states are the industry themselves. We’ve learned enough about capitalism to know that’s very dangerous.”

Many improvements could be made, including most importantly “listening to and believing the hundreds of thousands of users who argue marijuana use is not always benign.”

Read The Atlantic article here.

More women are using pot during pregnancy.
Here’s one reason why.

Pregnant women with severe nausea and vomiting in their first trimester were nearly four times more likely to use marijuana than those without morning sickness. Those with milder symptoms were twice as likely to use the drug as those with no symptoms.

More than 220,000 pregnant women in northern California completed surveys and submitted urine samples for drug screening in their first trimester. Researchers analyzed these data and also examined the participants’ medical records, looking for diagnoses of mild to severe morning sickness.

Some 2.3 percent of the women had severe nausea and vomiting; another 15.3 percent had milder symptoms. The rest experienced none. Among those with severe symptoms, 11.3 percent used marijuana and among those with mild symptoms, 8.4 percent used the drug compared to 4.5 percent who used marijuana but had no symptoms.

The researchers say they hope their study will encourage clinicians to provide safe and effective medicines to treat morning sickness. They also encourage clinicians to educate pregnant women about the negative effects that using marijuana during pregnancy may have on their babies, noting that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women use no marijuana during pregnancy and lactation.

Read Live Science article here. Read JAMA Internal Medicine abstract here.

The Marijuana Report is a weekly e-newsletter published by National Families in Action in partnership with SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana).

Visit National Families in Action’s website, The Marijuana Report.Org, to learn more about the marijuana story unfolding across the nation.

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Our mission is to protect children from addictive drugs
by shining light on the science that underlies their effects.

Addictive drugs harm children, families, and communities.
Legalizing them creates commercial industries that make drugs more available,
increase use, and expand harms.

Science shows that addiction begins in childhood.
It is a pediatric disease that is preventable.

We work to prevent the emergence of commercial
addictive drug industries that will target children.

We support FDA approved medicines.

We support the assessment, treatment, and/or social and educational services
for users and low-level dealers as alternatives to incarceration.

About SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana)
SAM is a nonpartisan alliance of lawmakers, scientists and other concerned citizens who want to move beyond simplistic discussions of “incarceration versus legalization” when discussing marijuana use and instead focus on practical changes in marijuana policy that neither demonizes users nor legalizes the drug. SAM supports a treatment, health-first marijuana policy.  SAM has four main goals:
  • To inform public policy with the science of today’s marijuana.
  • To reduce the unintended consequences of current marijuana policies, such as lifelong stigma due to arrest.
  • To prevent the establishment of “Big Marijuana” – and a 21st-Century tobacco industry that would market marijuana to children.
  • To promote research of marijuana’s medical properties and produce, non-smoked, non-psychoactive pharmacy-attainable medications.


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