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The Real Story
About Drug-Induced Deaths

"If left unchecked, illegal drugs will cost the United States 500,000 deaths and a trillion dollars over the next decade."
-- former US drug czar Barry McCaffrey, Washington Post, April 28, 2000.

Source: Centers for Disease Control, CDC Wonder System

Teasing out the truth about drug deaths requires that we first do a breakdown of the ICD-9 codes to determine which of the tallied deaths are actually due to the use of an illegal drug. For that purpose, the ICD codes specifically related to deaths caused by the non-therapeutic use of Amphetamines, Cannabis, Cocaine, Hallucinogens, and Heroin were identified as follows:

  • [304.0] Drug dependence Morphine type
  • [304.2] Drug dependence Cocaine
  • [304.3] Drug dependence Cannabis
  • [304.4] Drug dependence Amphetamine type
  • [304.5] Drug dependence Hallucinogens
  • [304.7] Drug dependence Combinations of morphine drug with any other
  • [305.2] Nondependent abuse of Cannabis
  • [305.3] Nondependent abuse of Hallucinogens
  • [305.5] Nondependent abuse of Morphine type
  • [305.6] Nondependent abuse of Cocaine type
  • [305.7] Nondependent abuse of Amphetamine type
  • [850.0] Accidental poisoning by Opiates and related narcotics
  • [854.1] Accidental poisoning by Psychodysleptics (Hallucinogens)
  • [854.2] Accidental poisoning by Psychostimulants (Amphetamine)
  • [855.2] Accidental poisoning by Local anesthetics (Cocaine)

Deaths due to illegal drugs: (1979-1998 inclusive) [New: 2003 "Drug-Induced" Mortality]
Drug NameICD-9 CodesNumber of Deaths% of All Deaths
Amphetamines 304.4
Cannabis 304.3
Cocaine 304.2
Hallucinogens 304.5
Opiates 304.0
Miscellaneous* 292
Grand Total 44,7270.10389
* - Miscellaneous includes 140 deaths due to ICD-9 292 "Drug Psychoses" which could not be separated for inclusion in the individual drug totals, and an additional 190 deaths due to 304.6 "absinthe addiction or glue sniffing."

In summary, over the 20 year period 1979-1998, slightly more than one-tenth of one percent of all deaths in the US were due to the use of illegal drugs. During that time, a total of 214,575 deaths were called drug-induced -- but only 21 percent of these were due to the use of "illegal" drugs.

Of the 44,727 deaths attributed to illegal drug use, 22,735 were caused by accidental heroin overdose [ICD-9 code 850.0], while another 15,551 died from accidental cocaine overdose [ICD-9 code 855.2]. That is a total of 38,286 (or 86 percent) of all deaths due to illegal drugs. One has to wonder how greatly this number of accidental deaths could be reduced if the people using the drugs had products of known quality and dosage to work with.

The United States government is currently spending over $20 billion per year to "fight the scourge of illegal drugs," and arresting over 700,000 per year for smoking marijuana. Why? Clearly, it has nothing to do with death.

To help put the lack of magnitude concerning drug deaths in perspective, consider that during the same 20 year timeframe:

Compare deaths from specific drugs to an interesting array of other accidental causes of death.

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