With marijuana now legal in some form throughout 23 states, the number of Americans who fatally overdosed on the drug last year was significant:
The rate of absolutely zero deaths from a marijuana overdose remained steady from last year, according to figures released this month by the Centers for Disease Control. But while Americans aren’t dying as a result of marijuana overdoses, the same can’t be said for a range of other substances, both legal and illicit.
A total of 17,465 people died from overdosing on illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine last year, while 25,760 people died from overdosing on prescription drugs, including painkillers and tranquilizers like Valium, according to CDC figures.
Opioid overdose levels rose so sharply in 2014 — spiking 14 percent from the previous year — the CDC described the levels as “epidemic.”
“More persons died from drug overdoses in the United States in 2014 than during any previous year on record,” the CDC reported earlier this month.
Alcohol, an even more accessible substance, is killing Americans at a rate not seen in roughly 35 years, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal data. The more than 30,700 Americans who died from alcohol-induced causes last year doesn’t include alcohol-related deaths like drunk driving or accidents; if it did, the death toll would be more than two and a half times higher.
According to a widely cited 2006 report in American Scientist, “alcohol is more lethal than many other commonly abused substances.” The report further puts the lethality of various substances in perspective:
Drinking a mere 10 times the normal amount of alcohol within 5 or 10 minutes can prove fatal, whereas smoking or eating marijuana might require something like 1,000 times the usual dose to cause death.
Though marijuana has yet to lead to a fatal overdose in the U.S., it does have the potential to be abused and lead to dangerous behaviors like drugged driving — but taking too much will likely lead to, if anything, a really bad trip.
Despite the changing tide in American attitudes toward marijuana for both therapeutic and recreational uses, legalization is still vigorously opposed by groups like the pharmaceutical lobby (who stand to lose big if patients turn to medical marijuana for treatment) and police unions (who stand to lose federal funding for the war on drugs).
Even among 2016 presidential contenders, Democratic hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is the only candidate from either party to support outright legalization of marijuana by removing it from the federal list of Schedule 1 drugs, which includes substances like heroin and LSD.
CORRECTION: This article previously mischaracterized Valium as a painkiller. It is used as a tranquilizer and in the treatment of anxiety-related conditions.