A new study just published in Archives of Internal Medicine shows a 360.5% increase in the death rate from fatal medication errors (FMEs) from 1983 to 2004, vastly outstripping most other causes of death. Notably, most of the increase in deaths took place at home, not in medical settings or other locations. FMEs are defined as deaths from mistakes involving medications: accidental overdoses, the wrong drug being taken, etc. They do not include deaths from "adverse reactions" (side effects) involving drugs taken correctly.
While the sharpest increase was among medication errors in which alcohol and/or street drugs were also involved, this figure was still well under half the number of FME deaths without alcohol or street drug involvement. While the data analyzed by researchers do not include the exact medications or other drugs involved, the researchers note that use of illicit drugs did not rise during theperiod studied, and the death rate from alcohol or street drugs increased only modestly in the period studied.
So exactly what is going on here is uncertain, but one possibility, suggested by the sharp increase in such deaths occurring at home, is noted in the Associated Press story on the study:
"The amount of medical supervision is going down and the amount of responsibility put on the patient's shoulders is going up," said lead author David P. Phillips of the University of California, San Diego.
Simply put, more patients are being sent home with powerful narcotics and other drugs to administer themselves.
Clearly, an important lesson here is that legal drugs can be deadly. Even if they're prescribed. Even if they're over-the-counter (acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, is responsible for about 500 U.S. overdose deaths each year). Even if they're legal recreational drugs like booze.
Marijuana is strikingly absent from this picture of deadly drugs. Unlike narcotic painkillers or alcohol, marijuana does not suppress breathing. As an editorial in the British Medical Journal noted, marijuana use has not been linked to higher death rates, and no fatal marijuana overdose has ever been documented. Indications of life-threatening interactions between marijuana and legal medicines are notably absent from the medical literature.
Some drugs are indeed deadlier than others, and marijuana is not among them.