Drugs That Kill and a Drug That Doesn't

Jul 06, 2009

FDA, Medical Marijuana, pharmaceuticals, science, whose goal is to "promote critical thinking, education, and informed citizenship" by presenting information on controversial issues "in a straightforward, nonpartisan, primarily pro-con format," did an interesting experiment recently. They filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Food and Drug Administration seeking information on reported deaths due to marijuana and 17 FDA-approved prescription drugs. Five of those drugs were chosen because they are widely used and well known, while the other 12 are used to treat many of the symptoms for which medical marijuana is also used.

The folks at took the FDA's figures and put them into a detailed report, and the results don't look good for the pharmaceutical industry.

The approved drugs, which included anti-nausea drugs, anti-spasmodics, anti-psychotics, and such well-known drugs as Vioxx, Ritalin, and Viagra, were suspected as the primary cause of 10,008 deaths and as a secondary cause in 1,679 more. Marijuana was the primary suspect in zero deaths and a suspected secondary factor in 279.

A few disclaimers are needed here: First, the FDA's reporting system does not attempt to prove definitively that a given drug caused a particular death. It's designed to warn of possible dangers, and physicians are encouraged to report suspected reactions. The numbers may well be overestimates of actual deaths related to various drugs.

Second, the list of drugs compared by doesn't completely reflect the pharmaceuticals for which marijuana might substitute. Some might complain, for example, about the inclusion of Vioxx, which was taken off the market due to health risks and which was the suspected main cause of some 4,500 deaths. On the other hand, plenty of other pain drugs that can be toxic weren't included, including acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol), a drug about which an FDA advisory committee recently sounded a warning and which is reported to cause hundreds of overdose deaths annually.

A few weeks ago a TV network news producer told me she found published studies of medical marijuana "unpersuasive" because "they didn't show marijuana was better than the other drugs." I don't know about you, but I think "less deadly" pretty definitely qualifies as "better."