While our federal government and most state governments continue to fight the use of cannabis for medical and recreational uses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that overdoses on drugs not called cannabis accounted for 38,329 deaths in 2010, making it the leading cause of injury death in the United States. For people aged 25-64, more die from drug overdose than car crashes.

The Drug Policy Alliance, along with many organizations in the United States, is recognizing the epidemic this Saturday on International Overdose Awareness Day, August 31. We at HIGH TIMES would like readers to reflect on the devastating statistics of drug overdose in this country and how more enlightened laws, especially legalization of adult cannabis use, can work to avoid many of these deaths.

Drug overdose deaths have more than doubled since 1999. According to CDC, 60 percent of the overdose deaths in 2010 were related to prescription pharmaceuticals and of those 22,000+ deaths, three-out-of-four related to opioid painkillers (like Oxycontin, Vicodin and Dilaudid) and three-out-of-ten related to benzodiazepenes (like Valium, Xanax and Ambien); some overdoses included both opioids and benzos).

Cannabis is well known to work synergistically with opioids to kill pain; medical marijuana patients studied in Berkeley reported cutting back their opioid prescriptions by a third to half. Cannabis is also great for mood, anxiety and insomnia, some of the conditions benzos are prescribed to treat. How many of those 22,000+ deaths would have been avoided if medical cannabis had been a legitimate treatment option?

One potential cause of the doubling in prescription overdoses can be traced to their marketing. Prior to 1997, advertisement for pharmaceuticals was extremely limited. Thanks to a rule change at the FDA that year, Big Pharma was freed up to market its drugs direct to the consumer (DTC). The United States and New Zealand are the only countries that allow DTC drug ads; in other nations, Big Pharma is mostly limited to marketing to physicians. In 1995, Big Pharma spent $340 million advertising its drugs mostly to doctors and hospitals. In 2009, that figure was $4.5 billion, an increase of over 1,300%.
For the other 40 percent of drug overdoses related to illicit drugs, we’d like to note that the widespread use of drug testing in academia and for employment is incredibly biased against the cannabis consumer. Marijuana metabolites will be detectable long after metabolites of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and other drugs flush from the system, and few schools or jobs are testing for alcohol abuse. This creates a perverse incentive for those who want to use recreational drugs to choose ones that, unlike cannabis, can cause a fatal overdose.

And in the unfortunate case that someone does overdose, laws criminalizing possession of cannabis and other drugs work to prevent witnesses from calling for emergency medical help, lest the witnesses be arrested and jailed. Drug Policy Alliance has been working since 2007 to pass “911 Good Samaritan” laws in 13 states and Washington DC. These laws provide some immunity from arrest and prosecution for drugs if the possessor is calling 911 to respond to a drug overdose.

This is a good start, but keep in mind that the legalization of cannabis possession in Washington and Colorado has freed every pot smoker to call 911, not just for drug overdoses but also for reporting criminal activity. That sounds much better, don’t you think?