Cocaine Remains Second Most Deadly Drug In the U.S.

By Kelly Burch 12/23/16

A new CDC report revealed that heroin and cocaine are the drugs most frequently involved in overdose deaths in the US.

Bag of cocaine

While much attention is given to the opioid epidemic and opioid overdoses, analysis from U.S. News and World Report shows that cocaine is the second most common drug involved in fatal overdoses

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that while heroin causes the most fatal overdoses, cocaine is the second leading cause of overdose deaths. However, there is a vast gap in the number of deaths caused by the drugs. While heroin was responsible for 10,863 deaths in 2014 (23.1%), cocaine was responsible for 5,856 deaths (12.4%), according the the CDC report.

Researchers looked at data from death certificates, where medical examiners and coroners rule on the cause of death. "The method was applied to provide a more in-depth understanding of the national picture of the drugs involved in drug overdose deaths,” the researchers wrote.

The data also showed how the prevalence of heroin deaths has increased, while cocaine deaths have remained relatively stable. In 2010, heroin caused 3,020 fatal overdoses, a number that had more than tripled by 2014. Meanwhile, cocaine caused 4,312 overdose deaths in 2010, a number that was relatively stable over the next four years. However, researchers cautioned that comparing the numbers across years may be misleading because increased reporting and detection can skew the results. 

In 2014, the deadliest drugs in the nation were heroin (10,863 deaths), cocaine (5,856 deaths), oxycodone (5,417 deaths); alprazolam, the anti-anxiety drug sold as Xanax or Niravam (4,217 deaths); and fentanyl (4,200 deaths). 

It’s important to note that 49% of these overdose deaths involved more than one drug, according to the 2014 data. Whether more than one drug was involved varied among the different substances. 

"For example, the majority of the drug overdose deaths [in 2014] involving methamphetamine did not involve other drugs," the researchers wrote. "In contrast, among deaths involving alprazolam and diazepam, more than 95% involved other drugs."

Overall, the number of overdose deaths in the U.S. increased by 23%, going from 38,329 in 2010 to 47,055 in 2014. Although drugs other than opioids contributed to the rising overdose rates, researchers were also clear that opioids have a massive impact on overdose death rates. 

“The most frequently mentioned drugs involved in these deaths were the opioids: heroin, oxycodone, methadone, morphine, hydrocodone, and fentanyl,” they wrote. In addition to their findings about the death rates around specific drugs, researchers called for more accurate data on overdose deaths to be kept. 

“The report also demonstrates the ability of a new method for abstracting data from the death certificate to enhance national monitoring of drug overdose deaths, and it emphasizes the need to include specific drugs involved in the death on the death certificate,” said the researchers.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.