Polydrug Use is a Killer, According to the Florida Medical Examiners

Every year, the medical examiners of Florida issue a report on the drugs found in the bodies of people who died in this state. They also delineate which people died with one or more drugs being the causative factor. This report has just been released for their 2013 deaths and it both interesting and revealing.

graph of drug cause overdose deaths

The results for hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab, and others), methadone, alcohol (ethanol) and cocaine. Blue indicates that when the drug was present, it caused the person’s death. Red indicates where the drug was found but did not cause a person’s death.

In the first six months of 2013, there were more than 94,000 deaths of any kind. Medical examiners determined that drugs were present in 4,159 cases. These deaths were tested for a long list of frequently-abused drugs including amphetamines; anti-anxiety drugs like Valium and Xanax; alcohol, prescription or illicit opiates like OxyContin, Vicodin, methadone, morphine, and heroin; bath salts; and of course, marijuana.

Here’s the astonishing fact about the results of these tests. Of those people who had a drug in their systems when they died:

93.5% of them had more than one drug present.

This points out the enormous predominance of polydrug abuse. In other words, a person drinks and uses cocaine. Or he abuses painkillers or heroin along with an anti-anxiety drug like Valium. Or marijuana is mixed with alcohol, LSD or a party drug.

Here’s another important thing to know about these deaths. Opiates are particularly likely to cause death. This report noted the presence of these opiates and opioids (synthetic opiates):

  • heroin
  • methadone
  • fentanyl
  • morphine
  • oxycodone

When these drugs were present, they were identified as THE drug that caused the person’s death in better than 50% of those cases.

In fact, when a person had any heroin in his body, it caused his death in 97% of the cases. When methadone was present, it was the causative factor in a person’s death 68% of the time. This tells you how dangerous these opiates and opioids are. They are notorious for slowing a person’s breathing down. A little too much of the drug and a person stops breathing.

It is common for people to mix opiates and benzodiazepines – the anti-anxiety drugs. But both these classes of drugs slow down the breathing, as does alcohol. So you can see that the danger of mixing two or more drugs that slow the breathing is quite intense. It’s not unusual for a person at a party to be drinking and then be offered some pills. When he takes a benzo with an opiate and he already has alcohol circulating in his body, he’s lucky if he wakes up in the morning.

Here’s another aspect to these deaths. When a person uses drugs, he (or she) is less aware. This means he is more likely to have an accident or take more of a drug than he realizes or runs into some other problem that kills him. He could be assaulted and be unable to protect himself or he could have a traffic accident. It’s not uncommon for people who are drunk to drown when they fall into a lake, canal or other body of water.

One of the most tragic things about these deaths is that they are preventable in most cases. I look at the 668 people who died with cocaine in their systems. For 291 of them, cocaine was the thing that killed them. Cocaine and other stimulants like methamphetamine are terribly hard on the heart and the arteries. The heart gets to pumping so hard and the arteries tighten up at the same time, sending one’s blood pressure through the roof. An artery can split, there can be a heart attack or a stroke.

In the great majority of these cases, these people didn’t intend to die, they just wanted to have a good time or escape their concerns. (There were some who were suicides.) Probably many were addicted and so had lost the power of choice over whether they used these drugs or didn’t.

It is our wish that people would find ways to have a good time that did not cause them to die or become addicted. There really are better ways to enjoy oneself.



Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.