An analysis of 168,900 autopsies conducted in Florida in 2007 found that three times as many people were killed by legal drugs as by cocaine, heroin and all methamphetamines put together. According to state law enforcement officials, this is a sign of a burgeoning prescription drug abuse problem.
"The abuse has reached epidemic proportions," said Lisa McElhaney, a
sergeant in the pharmaceutical drug diversion unit of the Broward
County Sheriff's Office. "It's just explosive."
In 2007, cocaine was responsible for 843 deaths, heroin for 121,
methamphetamines for 25 and marijuana for zero, for a total of 989
deaths. In contrast, 2,328 people were killed by opioid painkillers,
including Vicodin and Oxycontin, and 743 were killed by drugs
containing benzodiazepine, including the depressants Valium and Xanax.
Alcohol directly caused 466 deaths, but was found in the bodies of 4,179 cadavers in all.
While the number of dead bodies containing heroin jumped 14 percent
from the prior year, to a total of 110, the number of deaths influenced
by the painkiller oxycodone increased by 36 percent, to a total of
Across the country, prescription drugs have become an increasingly
popular alternative to the more difficult to acquire illegal drugs.
Even as illegal drug use among teenagers have fallen, prescription drug
abuse has increased. For example, while 4 percent of U.S. 12th graders
were using Oxycontin in 2002, by 2005 that number had increased to 5.5
It's not hard for teens to come by prescription drugs, according to
Sgt. Tracy Busby, supervisor of the Calaveras County, Calif., Sheriff's
Office narcotics unit.
"You go to every medicine cabinet in the county, and I bet you're going
to find some sort of prescription medicine in 95 percent of them," he
Adults can acquire prescriptions by faking injuries, or by visiting
multiple doctors and pharmacies for the same health complaint. Some
people get more drugs than they expect to need, then sell the extras.
"You have health care providers involved, you have doctor shoppers, and
then there are crimes like robbing drug shipments," said Jeff Beasley
of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "There is a multitude of
ways to get these drugs, and that's what makes things complicated."
And while some people may believe that the medicines' legality makes
them less dangerous than illegal drugs, Tuolumne County, Calif.,
Sheriff's Office Deputy Dan Crow warns that this is not the case.
Because everybody reacts differently to foreign chemicals, there is no
way of predicting the exact response anyone will have to a given
dosage. That is why prescription drugs are supposed to be taken under a
"All this stuff is poison," Crow said. "Your body will fight all of this stuff."
Tuolumne County Health Officer Todd Stolp agreed. A prescription drug
taken recreationally is "much like a firearm in the hands of someone
who's not trained to use them," he said.