Opioids Are Not the Only Drugs Which Kill

Man is using different drugs.

Our country is in the midst of an opioid addiction epidemic. By now it would be difficult not to hear something about this. A story having to do with the opioid crisis can be found in the news just about every day.

But it’s not just an opioid epidemic. Our addiction crisis involves several other drugs and these other substances do not get nearly as much media attention (or government attention either, for that matter) as the opioids. That’s dangerous too, because if we don’t address other drug habits with the same tenacity that we treat opioid addiction, it would appear that we are permissive or lackadaisical about other drug issues. We don’t want that.

Alcohol—The World’s Most Lethal Drug


When we think of drug overdoses, we almost never consider that alcohol poisoning is a form of a drug overdose. Alcohol is an addictive drug. It creates an altered mind state, and it is habit forming. It is also consumed at rates far higher and by far more people than any other drug.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year we lose about 88,000 people in the United States to alcohol misuse. But alcohol poisonings on their own only contribute to about 2,200 deaths in the U.S. each year (also according to the CDC).

Alcohol kills in many different ways. This is why it’s considered the world’s most lethal drug. According to the World Health Organization, about 5 percent of global, annual deaths are attributed to alcohol. We’re talking about tens of thousands of deaths in the United States every year, but with WHO’s information, we’re looking at millions of deaths every year globally. It’s a shame that these facts are not more widely publicized.

Again, alcohol is considered the most lethal drug because the substance creates so many different causes of death. Alcohol poisoning is just one of many. We also have to consider:

  • High blood pressure.
  • Heart disease.
  • Stroke.
  • Liver disease.
  • Various types of cancers such as cancer of the breast, throat, mouth, esophagus, colon, and liver.
  • Drunk driving.
  • Falls, drowning, burns.
  • Violence which could lead to death by homicide, suicide, sexual assault, etc.
  • Risky sexual behaviors which could lead to fatal, sexually transmitted diseases.

All of these can be and often are connected to excessive alcohol consumption. Remember, it is the combination of alcohol poisoning and the above factors (plus others) which lead to 88,000 deaths every year and more than 2.5 million years of potential life lost.

Cocaine—A Powerful, Lethal High

Cocaine abuse

Cocaine addiction is another habit which does not earn enough attention and effort in addressing it. According to the CDC, cocaine was involved in 1 out of every 5 overdose deaths in 2017. About 5 million Americans reported using cocaine in 2016. A lot of people think that the popularity for cocaine has faded away as other drugs have come on the scene, but that is clearly not the case.

Part of the reason why our nation might have forgotten about cocaine could have been because cocaine overdoses began to recede from 2006 to 2012. That was around the same time that opioid overdoses skyrocketed. So it is somewhat understandable why our attention shifted from the “Gentleman’s Drug” and onto opiates.

However, from 2012 to 2017, cocaine overdose deaths began to rise again. Just in 2017 alone, cocaine fatalities increased by 34 percent, according to the same CDC report mentioned above. About 14,000 people died from an overdose involving cocaine in 2017.

Meth—The Killer Combination of Chemicals

Meth” is its own class of drugs. Meth can appear in pill form as methamphetamine hydrochloride (brand named “Desoxyn”). There is also the illegal, street version of meth, often called “crystal meth.” Coming on and off the radar as a drug of significant risk to American health, meth is yet another substance that has lost some recognition and attention since the opioid epidemic took off. It is a mistake not to pay close attention to meth and not to do something about this drug.

The CDC  has some data on methamphetamine overdose deaths, though these figures are usually included in with numbers on cocaine and other psychostimulant overdoses. According to a detailed CDC publication for 2016 drug overdoses, “Drug overdose deaths involving cocaine, psychostimulants with abuse potential (psychostimulants), or both substances combined increased 42.4% from 12,122 in 2015 to 17,258 in 2016.” In that context, the CDC includes methamphetamine in the class of psychostimulants. This is sensible, as methamphetamine is most definitely a psychostimulant.

Another study published in the JAMA Network gives us further concern about the growth of amphetamine-related drug overdoses. (As a side note, amphetamine is a parent chemical to methamphetamine. Methamphetamine hydrochloride, the pharmaceutical version of meth, is similar to the drug amphetamine).

According to the JAMA Network study, demand for methamphetamine is increasing. In fact, in some U.S. states, deaths from methamphetamine use have now exceeded deaths from heroin.

It’s Not Just an Opioid Epidemic

Meth Addict

In October 2017 when the federal government officially recognized the opioid epidemic as a National Public Health Emergency, I believe they made a mistake (in addition to not appropriating any funding to address the addiction crisis of course). The other mistake the feds made was that they only listed the epidemic as an opioid epidemic. There was little or no mention of other lethal drugs like alcohol, cocaine, and meth.

If there’s a way to walk on thin ice in addressing drug addiction, this is it.  I’ll be the first to contend that the opioid epidemic is a serious issue. Tens of thousands of people die from opioids every year, and millions more are addicted to these drugs. The opioid problem truly is a national public health emergency. But so are other addictions.

But so are other addictions. If we focus all of our attention and resources as a nation on addressing opioid addiction, we run the risk of ignoring other, crucial drug problems that deserve our attention. All addiction is dangerous. All substance abuse is toxic and unhealthy. All drug habits pose a physical and psychological risk. As a united nation, we have to help our family members, loved ones, friends, and neighbors who struggle with addiction, no matter what type of substance they are using.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, MCAP, RAS, LADC



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.