Marijuana Ranks #1 as Most Abused Drug, But Prescriptions for Most Deaths

Guest Blog Contributed By: Michael Cartwright, Chairman and Co-founder of American Addiction Centers

In the first-ever global survey of illicit drug abuse, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington found marijuana to be the most widely used illegal drug worldwide, but most deaths are caused by addiction to prescription painkillers, such as Vicodin and Oxycontin. [1]

The Dangers of Painkiller Abuse

Prescription opiate abuse began to increase about 10 years ago, and today it is an absolute epidemic. Of the estimated 78,000 drug-related deaths in 2010, more than half were because of painkiller addictions. [1]

Many individuals who experience legitimate pain or illness are prescribed medications only to become gradually swept up by addiction. Others buy painkillers like Vicodin from their peers or drug dealers with the intention of experiencing the euphoric rush these drugs can temporarily produce. These drugs are readily available and accessible even to adolescents, who obtain painkillers from widespread drug dealers (many of whom are fellow students) or unknowing parents who fail to properly lock up or dispose of prescriptions in their homes.

Prescription Abuse Rising Among Women

According to the Centers for Disease Control, drug overdoses kill more people than car accidents and guns, and it’s getting worse among women. The CDC says women were four times as likely to die from prescription painkiller overdoses than overdose from cocaine and heroin deaths. [2]

Why is prescription abuse so prevalent among women?

  • Women are more often prescribed painkillers and for longer periods of time than men.
  • Women are more likely to suffer from chronic pain, which leads to a greater chance of being prescribed painkillers.
  • Women are twice as likely as men to have anxiety and depression, increasing their risk of drug overdose when prescribed antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.

When taken improperly, painkillers (or opioids) can cause respiratory depression or cardiac arrest, which can instantly kill – and the risks increase when taken with alcohol, which is a very common and lethal combination.

Withdrawal Symptoms

When abused long-term, prescription painkillers many users attempt to quit on their own without professional help, and the withdrawal symptoms can be emotionally and physically crippling. These symptoms include:

  • Restlessness
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Insomnia
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting

If you or a loved one has been taking a prescription medication and experiencing any of these symptoms, it is crucial to seek immediate professional help.

What Can We Do?

Physicians and other healthcare providers must appropriately prescribe painkillers, continuously educate their patients about the risks of prescription drugs and monitor them for substance abuse and behavioral health issues, such as anxiety, depression and trauma. Patients should use their medications as directed and properly dispose of expired or unused medications. Parents should speak with their children about the dangers of these drugs, lock up and monitor their medications properly and keep the lines of communication open.

CVS Is Doing Its Part to Combat This Issue

In the effort to bring this epidemic to a halt, there are countless campaigns, programs and laws currently in effect across the world. In August of 2013, national drugstore chain CVS announced it had suspended filling prescriptions written by prescribers for high-risk drugs. CVS said it identified 36 problem prescribers by studying their volume and share of high-risk drugs versus other providers in the same specialty and geographic region, as well as the ages of patients and their payment methods. [3]

The Dangers of Marijuana Abuse

Just because it isn’t responsible for so many deaths, marijuana’s worldwide popularity should not be overlooked. When it comes to the most widely abused drugs, marijuana remains #1. In 2010, an estimated 2.4 million Americans used marijuana for the first time, and more than one-half of that population was under the age of 18. [4]

Marijuana has been the subject of controversy for years. Though more and more states continue to legalize pot, many researchers and opponents say the drug produces detrimental effects on users’ brains and the likelihood that marijuana is a gateway drug to more hardcore drug abuse.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says marijuana contains 70% more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than tobacco, increases a user’s heart rate by as much as 100%, and can worsen anxiety and depression. [5] Marijuana abuse can also cause reproductive issues for both men and women, and weaken the immune system long-term.

If you or a loved one needs help with prescription drugs, marijuana or substances of any kind, please pick up the phone and call today. We’re here to help.


[1] Washington Post –

[2] Fox News –

[3] Wall Street Journal –

[4] –

[5] San Francisco Chronicle –