The Battle Of The Biggest Killer: Prescription Drugs V. Illegal Drugs

So, Florida is apparently plagued by addicted prescription-poppers and not the pot-addled deviants targeted by our government’s so-called “War on Drugs.” A new report shows that prescription drugs killed three-times more Floridians than illegal drugs, and not because old people can’t follow doctor’s orders. Addictive prescriptions like Vicodin, OxyContin, Valium and Xanax killed more users than all illegal drugs combined.

The report’s findings track with similar studies by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, which has found that roughly seven million Americans are abusing prescription drugs. If accurate, that would be an increase of 80 percent in six years and more than the total abusing cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, Ecstasy and inhalants.

The Florida report analyzed 168,900 deaths statewide. Cocaine, heroin and all methamphetamines caused 989 deaths, it found, while legal opioids — strong painkillers in brand-name drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin — caused 2,328.

Drugs with benzodiazepine, mainly depressants like Valium and Xanax, led to 743 deaths. Alcohol was the most commonly occurring drug, appearing in the bodies of 4,179 of the dead and judged the cause of death of 466 — fewer than cocaine (843) but more than methamphetamine (25) and marijuana (0).

The study also found that while the number of people who died with heroin in their bodies increased 14 percent in 2007, to 110, deaths related to the opioid oxycodone increased 36 percent, to 1,253.

Florida doesn’t track prescription drug purchases like other states, making life mindlessly easy for prescription drug addicts.

The lesson here is throw-out unused prescriptions, and be suspicious if your Xanax-munching friend keeps talking up impromptu trips to Disney World.

Legal Drugs Kill Far More Than Illegal, Florida Says [NYT]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Silversmok3 says:

    And this is news how?

  2. S3CT says:


  3. mycroft2000 says:

    I’d bet, though, that a large portion of the deaths are intentional-overdose suicides, which is certainly my plan if I ever get terminal cancer, or if McCain beats Obama.

  4. nyaz says:

    The Consumerist teaches me every week why I should hate this fare state I live in. Wal-Mart Old people fights, prescription drugs overdoses, bitchy ass teenagers that steal from girl scouts(not on the consumerist) and 8 year old little fat boys that steal there grandmothers trucks and intentionally crash into people cause it’s fun.

  5. chefdkb175 says:

    Drugs don’t kill people, people on drugs…UM..Er..drugs and people…people with drugs…UM..THOSE ARE NOT MY DRUGS!

  6. darksunfox says:

    I’m shocked alcohol didn’t cause more deaths…

  7. Quatre707 says:

    and marijuana is illegal again…why?
    oh that’s right, it allegedly makes you stupid if smoked four times a day…

  8. BearTack says:

    Alcohol does indeed cause many more deaths. Estimates are on the order of 100,000 nationwide.

    But, causes of death are quite slippery and very subject to interpretation. Even though the most immediate cause of death in most lung cancer is often pneumonia, the underlying cause is lung cancer. But it can (and is) be counted more than one way.

    Much of the attention being given to morbidity associated with prescribed drugs is a power play by the DEA to extend their reach further into the prescription powers of physicians. Even now you not only have a clerk at your insurance company deciding what meds you can get, but a computer program at the DEA too.

  9. Trai_Dep says:

    Well, only darkies and liburals smokes the ganja, while upstanding, corpulent AM radio talk-show hosts abuse ‘scripts so of COURSE one’s better than the other. Duh!

  10. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    @BearTack: Indeed. In this present economy in which the numbers of the uninsured and underinsured are staggering and increase day upon day… how many lives could be saved by teaching high school juniors and seniors about the commonest medicines, their testing, safety, and side effects, and the most common non-life-threatening ailments? How many more lives even than that could be saved if we allowed adults to treat common, familiar things like urinary tract infections, gastroenteritis, and the flu as they now do indigestion, colds, and minor headaches? How much less would doctor visits cost, and how much better would the standard of care be, if the doctors’ time wasn’t wasted by every little fever and sniffle? So how many lives and money does it cost to regulate and regulate our freedom of choice away when it comes to medicine?

  11. Ein2015 says:

    If only the money wasted on the “War on Drugs” was spent on healthcare…

  12. mikells43 says:

    im an addict. recovering that is (thank god). and they need an rx monitering bill. theres a show on every sunday in florida that talks about the rx abuse epidemic in fl and the rest of the usa. listen to it sometime. its good. the guy who hosts it is a pharmacist during the week. so he sees it all. addiction is sick to watch. and its sick to see others go thru it. you can recover. with a little bit of work.

    fl needs that drug monitering bill to pass and to get an rx monitering system. there are pain clinics that will give you opiates on first visit. percocets for headaches and oxys for a sprained ankle with no mri or metal in you. just look at one of those coupon books like u see in your town the pain docs are in there advertising to write you opiates and with a 25 dollar off coupon.

  13. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    @mikells43: They don’t need a drug monitoring bill. You need one. Don’t propose forcing everyone to share the responsibility for your bad circumstances and choices.

  14. Wow, you have to work REALLY HARD to get high on Xanax. I’d be totally interested to know how many Xanax deaths are accidental vs. deliberate, because you are SO on the wrong drug if it was accidental trying to get high.

  15. thaShady says:

    We are the only country where people die from prescription overdoses because other countries dont give a shit if you smoke weed

  16. VikingP77 says:

    I’m SO underwhelmed by this study. Really? People hate their lives so they turn to prescription drugs which are easier to get? Really?! @Ein2015: Agree…..WAR on DRUGS FAIL

  17. Aphex242 says:

    Like we needed an article telling us that legislating morality doesn’t work.

    …actually, maybe quite a few people on Capitol Hill DO need an article like that.

  18. The main reason marijuana is illegal is because if people could legally grow their own medicine Big Pharma would lose BILLIONS of dollars every year. Plus, if we used legally grown US hemp as fiber we’d be able to cut pesticides and fertilizers used for cotton crops but then what would Monsanto do with all those extra chemicals?

    It is an abomination that cannibis is illegal in this country when it causes ZERO deaths and legal drugs cause thousands.

  19. jmuskratt says:

    I’d be much more interested to know the PERCENTAGE of users that die from overdoses of each type of drug.

    Raw numbers of deaths caused by “x” are meaningless when the size of each user base is unknown, and what, if any, crossover there is.

    989 drug deaths seems much smaller than 2,000+ Rx deaths, unless you figure there are 1000 drug users (hyperbole people!), as opposed to 1M plus legal narcotics users.

    That said, I think drugs should be legalized yesterday. It’s just counterproductive to site as justification studies that stress the sound bite result than making more complicated arguments..

  20. bohemian says:

    They really should put quite a few drugs into the over the counter market. Anything that doesn’t require monitoring, isn’t mood altering, or poses some big danger should be on the shelves. Then pharmacists can spend their time monitoring the various drugs with abuse potential and instructing patients on the more complex drugs.

    It is stupid to waste the time of a pharmacy for things like Zyrtec for years, now I can buy it by the bucket at Sams. Yet they can’t find two seconds for a pharmacist to answer questions about something complicated to make sure I am taking it right and it won’t kill me.

    As for the people gaming doctors and pharmacists to get controlled drugs I want to punch them right in the face if ever given the chance. It is people like that why I get the third degree over minor scripts like Tramadol, it isn’t even a narcotic.

  21. nsv says:

    Thanks loads, guys.

    I’m a legitimate Vicodin user after an accident. I take what my doctor prescribes and no more. And I’ve got to jump through hoops to get my prescriptions. Because of Florida’s laws (or perhaps they’re federal laws,) I’m frequently forced to go days between the last prescription and getting the new one filled. I’m about to do it again this week.

    And you paint with a broad brush that makes me look like a drug-abusing criminal, and reinforces the bad reputation that these drugs already have.

    Most of the time, prescription drugs help people. How about attacking the problem and not the medications or the honest patients?

  22. jmuskratt says:

    @nsv: Closing down all of the “pain management clinics” would be a good place to start.

  23. SkyeBlue says:

    There wouldn’t be so many of these pills on the street if Doctor’s were not prescribing them to people who don’t need them. I live in a small town of about 5600 people and the Doctor’s here seem to prescribe Oxycontin and Methadone like it is candy, this town is flooded with them.

    Is there no oversight in regards to how many of these kinds of pills Doctor’s can prescribe? I live quite close to the borders of 2 other states and when it gets to a point where someone can’t get any more pills they just go across the ste line to either Oklahoma or Texas and get more pills from other unsuspecting Doctors. A nationwide diatabase of who is prescribing what to who is DEFINITELY needed.

  24. BearTack says:


    Alcohol prohibition didn’t work in the ’20s, the drug war has been going on since the Harrision Act of 1914. You don’t use a pickaxe to perform a cornea transplant, and using the law to try and solve what is a medical problem is even worse.

    As an addict in recovery, you need to know and accept that the problem is not that drugs or alcohol exist, it is the lack of acceptance that you as an individual for whatever reason, can not stop with the first one. Whether the substance is freely available or not, doesn’t matter: the user can always find them. Take the responsibility.

    It is the collateral damage inflicted upon the rest of society by its drug wars that is the greatest fallout. Those costs are well known, and have been listed elsewhere. But even those suffering from the bones of addiction are damaged by attempting to use the law as solution to this medical issue. It is like trying to deal with diseases by outlawing the TB bacillus, flu viruses or the plague.

  25. JennQPublic says:

    @speedwell: Amen! Why should all of society have to babysit those who have addiction problems? I’m more than happy to fund recovery programs with my tax dollars, but it’s not the government’s job to protect you from yourself.

    @The Rude Bellman: The main reason marijuana is illegal is that originally it was the Mexican immigrants who were using it recreationally. People’s fear/enmity towards brown immigrants is nothing new. Also, marijuana prohibition pre-dates Big Pharma. I’m no fan of the pharmaceutical companies, but I get tired of hearing that they’re behind a conspiracy to prevent us from smoking the ganja.

  26. bohemian says:

    @jmuskratt: No closing down all the pain management clinics would not be a good idea. Closing down the disreputable ones that are operating as legal drug dealers is.

    There are plenty of decent pain management clinics that leave addictive or narcotic drugs as the last resort and closely monitor their patients. Most of their patients have cancer, nerve disorders, major orthopedic problems or documented chronic pain disorders.

  27. IamToddDavis says:

    I am disabled. If I lived in another state I could control my pain like my peers do, with medical marijuana. But no. I live in Flo-duh. So, I have to go through incredible lengths to get medically necessary pain medication. While my doctor is sympathetic, he feels the burning eyes of the regulators over his shoulder and prescribes me far below what he knows I need. So, I sometimes supplement the medicine with alcohol. And yes, I’m aware that could possibly kill me. But the pain gets to me.

  28. flamincheney says:

    What this study fails to adequately address is the number of people who move from prescription narcotics to street narcotics before dying. Many long time prescription drug abusers often find it easier and cheaper to move to street drugs after a certain amount of time.

    Our system is set up to fail, and more regulation isn’t going to help anyone: addicts will move to street drugs, legitimate users will be treated a criminals, additional regulation will surely cause costs to raise even more, etc.

  29. VikingP77 says:

    @nsv: You are SO right. My mother has a metal rod in her back, and fibromyalgia for over ten years! She has had problems for YEARS getting the doctors to give her enough pain meds if at all! They need to see her multiple times and she lives in Alaska. Her Doc even discouraged her from doing medical marijuana! I got pretty angry about that because its legal up there with doctors note. So she drinks. Great solution. Thank you corrupt system for helping keep people off the drugs! Good job!

  30. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    Those of you who need pain medication and can’t get it, my sympathies are entirely with you. You’re the ones being punished for other people’s problems. Hell, so what if you do become addicted? Are so impoverished as a society and as a nation that we can’t suck up our well-fed guts and deal with it in a decent, compassionate way? Aren’t addicted people our own friends and family? Don’t we understand that people need to deal with intractable pain?

    Nobody goes into this with the definite goal of being a junkie. Not one person thinks to themselves, “I’m going to sell my soul to a chemical today, and willingly suffer pain if I can’t get it. I’m going to risk my job and my reputation and my family. I’m going out there and I’m aspiring to become a burden on society by becoming one of its most reviled criminals.” I read not too long ago about how there are doctors and nurses who become addicted to some medications solely through being exposed to them in the operating room and while administering them to patients. (It’s true! Look it up!)

    If there wasn’t such a legal and psychological burden on being hooked on something, we’d see addiction as the misfortune it is and encourage people to get the help they need. It’s cruel that we actively discourage addicted people from reshaping their lives by shaming and hassling them. It’s especially cruel when those people are shamed and hassled because the cause of their addiction is doctor incompetence, or long-term physical pain, or occupational exposure.

  31. Annika-Lux says:

    @Eyebrows McGee: Have you ever taken Xanax? I’ve never known anyone to have a problem getting fucked up on it. Benzodiazepines are very widely abused.

  32. nygenxer says:

    Here’s something f*cked up about vicodin or hydrocodone:

    It’s not available in the pure form here in the US. They add acetaminophen to it so that people will get sick instead of try to get high on it. Unfortunately, most people don’t know that and so their livers get destroyed and instead of getting high, they get DEAD of liver failure!

    Yes citizens, to protect you and save your life, we’re going to spike this medicine with a chemical that becomes a poison at higher dosages and kills you…to uh, protect your life from…um…the dangers of…anyway, drugs are bad, m’kay.

    Lethal dosage of killer #1 cigarettes (which are more addictive than cocaine): about a carton in 15 minutes.

    Lethal dosage of killer #2 alcohol: varies widely; about a bottle in an hour (less if you pass out & choke on your own vomit)

    Lethal dosage of marijuana – ZERO killed since the dawn of recorded history (literally): lethal dosage is ESTIMATED to be about 1200 pounds smoked in 15 minutes.

    Folks, if you smoke 1200 pounds of anything in 15 minutes, you’re probably going to die.

    Lethal dosage of psilocybin (magic mushrooms): none.

    Check out for honest information on recreational pharmaceuticals.

  33. IamToddDavis says:

    “addiction” is a crazy word isn’t it? If I take blood pressure medicine for the rest of my life because I need it, am I addicted to it? Or is it medically necessary?

  34. whatdoyoucare says:

    My step-mom came to realize about 20 years ago that she had been taking a prescription drug for years that she was only supposed to be taking for a few months. The pharamacist and the doctor both messed up. The pharmacist kept refilling it and the doctor didn’t catch it. And she blindly kept taking pills that she had no idea what they were for. It just goes to show that you need to take responsibilty for your own healthcare.

  35. ShadowFalls says:


    That is because, often, with overdose of prescription meds, they never get out the door to get other people killed.

  36. BlackFlag55 says:

    Big Pharma is …. well, words fail me. Evil just ain’t a strong enough word. Watched helplessly as doctors medicated both parents to death and this past summer watched helplessly as a dear friend was medicated to death in a hospital. Wrong medications, wrongly administered, then the follow up care involved more wrong dosage along with misdiagnosis. He’s dead and there’s a huge settlement pending, and yet … the doctors, nurses and hospital march merrily along.

    But we hate drug dealers on the corner.

  37. Mr. Gunn says:

    Eyebrows McGee: You must be thinking of a different substance. The stuff is prescribed in tiny doses, because that’s all it takes.

    IOW, what Annika-Lux said.

  38. mizmoose says:

    Some of the comments here terrify me. I go to a pain management doctor at a hospital-run pain management center for severe joint pain caused by multiple health conditions.

    I’m allergic to oxycodone (aka oxycontin, percodan, percoset, etc.) and hydrocodone (aka vicodin, among others) so when the mid-level pain killer (tramadol, aka ultram) isn’t strong enough I take morphine.

    People in severe pain do not get “high” from taking pain killers. I openly admit that if it’s been more than a couple of months since I’ve taken it, and I take it on an empty stomach, morphine can give me a buzzed feeling for an hour or so. However 98% of the time taking morphine is not much different from taking Advil for minor pain, except that after about 2-3 days of regular use I start getting cognitive problems.

    My “primary” doctors have been uncomfortable prescribing narcotics mostly due to the stupidity of the “War On Drugs” culture. Pain management doctors are usually better able to sort out those who really need the strong stuff, and as it’s their mission to help people in severe, daily pain live as normal a life as possible, they’re more willing and able to prescribe. However, I always surprise them – Their idea of a “one month supply” of MSIR (short-acting morphine) lasts me 9-12 months. I hate taking the stuff.

    (Sadly, I am currently taking both morphine AND valium, due to my stupid useless spine causing problems.)

    Don’t assume people who use narcotics (or any other medication) long term are abusing them. Don’t assume that doctors who prescribe strong pain killers are lazy or not doing their job. Don’t let the government decide which doctors can prescribe, for what, when, and how much, and don’t let the government decide what patients are “legitimate.”

    Health insurance companies (and not just HMOs) are already letting people slip through cracks and refusing to give suffering people medications and other treatments they need. I know there’s a crisis of uninsured people in the US, but I fear that the governments involvement can only make things worse.

  39. mizmoose says:

    @whatdoyoucare: Years ago a severe infection in my leg (I nearly lost it) left me in an amazing amount of pain. I wound up leaving the hospital with a 60 day prescription for MSContin (12-hour time release morphine), taken twice a day, and MSIR (short-acting morphine), to be taken for “break-through” pain.

    Around day 45 or so I realized that I not only was no longer having breakthrough pain, but the pain was a lot less, and decided I wanted off the morphine. Long(er) story short, I called the Dr’s office and said, “You got me on this shit, now you get me off!” The nurses were confused because — get this — there were no step down orders in my chart.

    I found out a couple days later, after going in to strangle^Wmeet with my doctor, that he had thought when he gave me the prescription, “She’s in so much pain, she’ll never get off the stuff.” He’d been planning on passing me off to a pain management clinic for my continued use. That not only had never been done, but no followup had been scheduled until I had called up and demanded one!

    (And, yes, as I mentioned earlier, I still do use morphine. But a hell of a lot less, and not for over a month at a time.)

  40. Valhawk says:

    @mycroft2000: What a loss to the genepool that would be :rolls eyes:

    Back on target, this is surprising how? A more interesting result would have been to compare the death rate in each category to estimates of total usage for that category. Of course there will be more deaths from prescription drugs there are more people taking them.

    Yawn, lets get some real news.

  41. @JennQPublic: “The main reason marijuana is illegal is that originally it was the Mexican immigrants who were using it recreationally.”

    I’ve never heard that. I’m wondering where you learned that. I’m not saying I don’t believe it, but I’m very familiar with the history of how pot became illegal, and I’ve never heard anything specific about racism against Mexicans having a role in it. I’ve got a few old printings of anti-drug propaganda where blacks were used, I’ve seen many other examples but I’ve never seen/heard anything relating to Mexicans.

    Various minority groups have been used in anti-drug propaganda type stuff, the earliest of course were Chinese immigrants and the passing of opium. The flavor of racism in those days was that the Chinese were lazy, and opium was to blame, so anti-opium laws were passed.

    Anslinger, DuPont (DuPont petrochemical), and Hearst each had thier own reasons for setting the wheels in motion. They certainly used falsehoods and other provacative stories about minorities and pot to stir up fear in the hearts of Americans, but fear of minorities was just a means to an end, the underlying reason is more often cited as being good old fashioned greed and thirst for power.

    While Big Pharm may not have been around at the start of anti-pot laws, they absolutely lobby their asses off to make sure those laws stay on the books.

    The biggest moneymaker off of the illegality of marijuana these days is the prison-industrial complex.

  42. Mike8813 says:

    Wow. Interesting to see how many wild tangents this post turned into among the comments. Conspiracies, Weed legalization, Screw the addicts, Love the addicts, etc. It honestly made me forget what the story was about after I was done reading all of them.

    But as for the subject matter, yikes. The first commenters imply (Quite dick-headedly I might add) that they already knew Rx’s killed more than drugs or alcohol… but I sure as hell didn’t. Interesting stuff.

  43. elanne says:

    XANAX kills.

  44. Pro-Pain says:

    @speedwell: Oh SnaP that was good!

  45. Pro-Pain says:

    I take both percocets and xanax’s. You don’t take ’em on the same day, and you NEVER mix them, don’t abuse ’em and life is good! Stupid is as stupid does. Common sense rules.

  46. Mike_Hawk says:

    @speedwell: @speedwell:

    Prescription drug use is a powerful responsibility. Your idea sounds ok on paper, until you consider the danger of letting people self medicate. The most obvious example is Antibiotic usage. Antibiotic resistance among pathogens is at an all time high. Why? because people demand antibiotics and physicians get tired of angry soccer moms yelling at them because little Timmy is dying and needs that penicillin for his cold.

    Prescriptions are dangerous, most of them have side effects and or potential health risks and consumers are, lets face it, for the most part ignorant as to how a given med works or what the risks are.

    Also, Mizmouse: it is not physiologically possible to be allergic to an opiate. Now you might not like the side effects (and that is reason enough to not want to use them) but I assure you that you are not allergic to them.

  47. jonworld says:

    “If I take blood pressure medicine for the rest of my life because I need it, am I addicted to it? Or is it medically necessary?”

    Rule of thumb I heard: Do you control the medicine, or does it control you?

  48. dragonfire81 says:

    This is the result of a healthcare system that focuses on piling as many pills into patients hands as possible, instead of providing more well rounded care.

  49. This is a fairly strong argument against legalizing drugs. Legitimizing the ownership and use of controlled substances is extremely dangerous, and these families pay the price. The war on drugs may be stupid and futile, but that’s because it was not and has never been about winning – it’s about controlling.

    Clearly, the prescription system is not adequate for controlling the spread of this stuff. This is one of those situations where I agree that bureaucracy is necessary – more federalized controls are required to prevent the spread of prescription painkiller abuse. It’s becoming an epidemic.

  50. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    @Mike_Hawk: It;’s possible to teach people the danger of overusing antibiotics. It’s not possible to heal them from an infection without them.

  51. mycroft2000 says:

    @Valhawk: My genes are necessary to the pool insofar as they will have to be spliced into your children if they are to have any capacity for grammar and syntax.

  52. rmz says:

    And alcohol & tobacco kill more people than marijuana. Next!

  53. zyodei says:

    I’m more interested in how many people have been killed by LEGAL pharmacethe correct, prescribed dosage. The JAMA puts the number at 100,000 a year. I would be willing to be it’s a lot higher.

    Fatalities caused by legal pharmaceuticals have DOUBLED between 1998 and 2005. That’s only 7 years.

    Two great examples of the failure of American Democracy (or, evidence that we do not HAVE a democracy):

    1. Drugs, especially marijuana, are still illegal, despite the opposition of anyone who has studied the issue beyond the nightly news, including presidential panels.

    Reason? The prison-industrial complex makes too much money off them. Money buys political power.

    2. Pharmaceuticals are still allowed to be pushed to everyone from cradle to grave, despite more and more evidence of their toxicity and dangerous side effects. Not just allowed, of course, but actively promoted by the government.

    Reason? The pharma-medical-complex makes too much money off them. Money buys political power.

    What country is this we live in again?

  54. mariospants says:

    drugs taken by a person to whom they were NOT prescribed make them just as illegal as cocaine. Title should be: “The Battle Of The Biggest Killer: Illegal Prescription Drugs V. Illegal Ilicit Drugs” so somesuch.

  55. gliscameria says:

    What are the numbers for Mexico? Just curious if availability has a factor either way. Do people start abusing something because it has some taboo to it, or does constantly being subjected to it lead to abuse?

  56. geoffhazel says:


    or if McCain beats Obama.

    Mind if I write this down and we revisit in November?

  57. mrearly2 says:

    I knew that, for a while: prescription drugs cause more death, than illegal drugs.
    Also, doctors are the third leading cause of death, in the USA.

    When are people gonna wake up? Drugs are poisons, and should be used only in very limited circumstances.

  58. howie77 says:

    Let’s do the math, 30 Oxy’s with insurance cost approx.$20.
    Street value $50ea X 30= $1500.00
    Profit= $1480 per month or $17760 per year for the street dealer! Considering the fact that the longer you use oxycontin the more you need to acheive the same effect start multiplying the above figures by 2, 3, 4 or more.
    Doctors who are either idiots or don’t care create a huge drug abuse problem and purveyors of oxycontin (which is probably one of the most addictive drugs ever) pocketing huge profits and turning our next generation into addicts and criminals.