Cocaine, methamphetamines, and heroin killed fewer that 1,000 of Florida's 15 million adults in 2007 - less than a third the number killed by tranquilizers and painkillers. Throwing alcohol in with the illicit substances, their death toll was still less than half that from mood medications. Addiction and dangerous drug use are not about illicit substances - they are at the heart of the American experience.

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The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, June 14, 2008. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at

Dying of Medicine

Let's work our way up from the bottom of the list of drugs that killed people in Florida in 2007. Florida has 15 million adults. Marijuana killed none of them in 2007. Methamphetamines, 25 people. Heroin, 110. Alcohol, 466. Cocaine, 843.

Tranquilizers actually caused slightly fewer deaths than cocaine - 743 - although more than alcohol and heroin added together. Vicodin/OxyContin - 2,328. And prescription drug fatalities have been growing steadily and are increasing far more rapidly than illicit drug use and fatalities.

Although prescription addiction is more upscale (witness Cindy McCain), it has been more common than addiction to herbal drugs for decades. And Florida is the capital of pharmaceutical abuse, addiction, and death. Anna Nicole Smith died in Florida of prescription drug misuse. The former governor's daughter (and niece of the president), Noelle Bush, has been treated for her addiction to medications. And Rush Limbaugh cruised the streets of Palm Beach (actually, he had his maid do it) scoring OxyContin.

We're worried about the wrong things. After years of being afraid of bugaboos like heroin, cocaine, and meth, and thinking we were public health experts by imagining that alcohol was the most lethal substance of all, we discover that those medical substances we take to allay our poor, troubled souls are killing us at ever increasing rates. And young people are far more likely to use these drugs than older generations, so the future of death by medicine is even bleaker.

If the government allocated its resources against substances strictly on their likelihood of being abused and causing death, the NIDA would change its name to the National Institute on Pharmaceutical Abuse. Addiction has always been a bludgeon used to fend off foreign drugs. Drug education is about continuing to scare kids about illegal drugs and alcohol.

Addiction and dangerous drug use are not about illicit substances - they are at the heart of the American experience.