Here’s How Many People Fatally Overdosed On Marijuana Last Year

With marijuana now legal in some form throughout 23 states, the number of Americans who fatally overdosed on the drug last year was significant:

The rate of absolutely zero deaths from a marijuana overdose remained steady from last year, according to figures released this month by the Centers for Disease Control. But while Americans aren’t dying as a result of marijuana overdoses, the same can’t be said for a range of other substances, both legal and illicit.


A total of 17,465 people died from overdosing on illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine last year, while 25,760 people died from overdosing on prescription drugs, including painkillers and tranquilizers like Valium, according to CDC figures.

Opioid overdose levels rose so sharply in 2014 — spiking 14 percent from the previous year — the CDC described the levels as “epidemic.”

“More persons died from drug overdoses in the United States in 2014 than during any previous year on record,” the CDC reported earlier this month.


Alcohol, an even more accessible substance, is killing Americans at a rate not seen in roughly 35 years, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal data. The more than 30,700 Americans who died from alcohol-induced causes last year doesn’t include alcohol-related deaths like drunk driving or accidents; if it did, the death toll would be more than two and a half times higher.

According to a widely cited 2006 report in American Scientist, “alcohol is more lethal than many other commonly abused substances.” The report further puts the lethality of various substances in perspective:

Drinking a mere 10 times the normal amount of alcohol within 5 or 10 minutes can prove fatal, whereas smoking or eating marijuana might require something like 1,000 times the usual dose to cause death.

Though marijuana has yet to lead to a fatal overdose in the U.S., it does have the potential to be abused and lead to dangerous behaviors like drugged driving — but taking too much will likely lead to, if anything, a really bad trip. 

Despite the changing tide in American attitudes toward marijuana for both therapeutic and recreational uses, legalization is still vigorously opposed by groups like the pharmaceutical lobby (who stand to lose big if patients turn to medical marijuana for treatment) and police unions (who stand to lose federal funding for the war on drugs).

Even among 2016 presidential contenders, Democratic hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is the only candidate from either party to support outright legalization of marijuana by removing it from the federal list of Schedule 1 drugs, which includes substances like heroin and LSD.

Maryland Synthetic Marijuana Ban: Bill Would Ban ‘Spice’ Statewide

A bill that would ban possession and distribution of synthetic marijuana statewide came before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

Delegate Michael Hough, R-District 3B, who sits on the committee, said testimony from people around the state echoed the recent problems Frederick County has experienced with the substance, commonly known by the brand name Spice.

While the city of Frederick and several smaller towns have banned synthetic marijuana, businesses in the county can still sell it legally.

Other jurisdictions are also finding that as municipalities ban synthetic marijuana, vendors simply shift to areas where there is no prohibition, Hough said.

“It’s like a whack-a-mole problem,” Hough said. “Anytime one municipality or one county bans it, then it shows up someplace else. It shows why we have to have a statewide ban of it.”

Delegate Kevin Kelly, D-District 1B, filed the legislation discussed by lawmakers Tuesday. However, legislators from Frederick County also have said they plan to submit bills to curb Spice sales and use.

The Judiciary Committee did not vote on Kelly’s bill Tuesday, Hough said.

Synthetic pot ‘no different to ice’

THESE people are the tip of the iceberg of the Hunter’s synthetic cannabis problem.

They’re employed, they have families, but they’re in hospital today because of synthetic cannabis bought openly, and legally, from a retail outlet.

They’re speaking out because as one of them, John, 34, said this week: ‘‘There’s no difference between smoking ice and smoking this stuff. People are using it thinking it’s a safe alternative to pot, but it’s not.

‘‘You’d do anything to get that smoke. You live for the stuff. I put myself in hospital last week because if I didn’t get help I wouldn’t have had a family left, and I’d probably be dead.’’

Public focus has been on synthetic cocaine since October last year after truck driver Gary Punch, 44, bought the product at a Hunter outlet, went on a naked psychotic rampage at Tomago and died two days later.

But three people receiving treatment at just one Hunter hospital this week say synthetic cannabis is possibly an even bigger problem than synthetic cocaine.

This is because of its potency, the way it is marketed, the lack of regulatory control, and because people who buy it are often looking for a ‘‘safe’’ alternative to illicit drugs while trying to end their cannabis use.

‘‘When things were really bad I’d think ‘I don’t know what’s in this stuff. What am I doing? I’m poisoning myself’,’’ said Sue, 39, in hospital receiving treatment for both physical and mental consequences of taking synthetic cannabis.

‘‘Parents should know that kids shouldn’t be taking this stuff, even though it’s sold in so many places. I’m speaking out because I want to make sure young kids don’t get on it.’’

John’s father remembers feeling relieved more than a year ago after his son said he had found a legal way to end a marijuana habit of more than a decade.

‘‘When this started off it sounded like a reasonable idea, a product that you could buy legally to get off the illegal drug, but it’s turned out to be probably 10 times worse than marijuana,’’ John’s father said.

The synthetic cannabis is marketed as ‘‘herbal incense’’. Products seen by the Newcastle Herald carry labels saying it is not fit for human consumption, but they are also promoted as ‘‘legal weed’’, and are sold to be smoked.

‘‘He becomes an entirely different person when he has this stuff,’’ John’s father said.

‘‘He’d rather have it than food. He was using so much it was costing him $1000 a week. He’d run out of money and that’s when he’d come to us, or go to the loan sharks.

‘‘He became more and more desperate on it and very aggressive, and it led to many arguments in the family; whether to support him or leave him to hang out to dry on his own.

‘‘The impact on the family is severe because nobody wants to associate with him.’’

John’s father said the extent of the problem hit him while visiting his son in hospital last week, when he saw two other people, both older than John, receiving treatment after battling with synthetic cannabis.

‘‘You can buy it at so many places now, and you’ll find there’s more places opening up because people are realizing there’s so much money in it.’’

A report to the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre in October last year noted a ‘‘significant’’ increase in synthetic cannabis use in Australia in 2012, with 15percent of surveyed users saying they had used the drug last year, up from 6percent in 2011.

A NSW parliamentary inquiry is investigating the problem.

NSW Drug Squad commander Superintendent Nick Bingham told the inquiry all synthetic drugs should be banned until they were deemed safe.

More using fake pot products

Incense and potpourri products line shelves at a BP station in Brooksville on Monday. Use of the “fake pot” products is on the rise. Some manufacturers have altered ingredients to skirt bans.

Susan Casiglia started to notice disturbing changes in her son’s demeanor four months ago, about the same time he started bringing home colorful packages of potpourri and incense.

The packages warn that the contents are not for human consumption. But Casiglia said her son, looking for a high, smoked the products, which he purchased at a convenience store down the street in Brooksville.

On the verge of official adulthood, the teen developed a temper and was often agitated, Casiglia said. She pleaded with him to stop smoking.

“He says it’s legal, and what am I going to do?” she recalled.

When their confrontations became physical, Casiglia kicked him out and filed a restraining order.

The 48-year-old mother of three is convinced her son is a casualty of what many call “legal weed” or “designer pot” — herbs marketed as air freshener but laced with chemicals that, when smoked, mimic the high of marijuana.

Products with names such as Red Magic, Serenity and Blueberry Meditation, which hit the shelves of head shops a few years ago, can now be found in convenience stores for as little as $6.

Easily accessible and undetected in drug screenings, the products are popular with teens and adults alike, experts say.

But some people who smoke the products have begun showing up in emergency rooms suffering from agitation, paranoia, tremors, racing hearts, high blood pressure, shortness of breath, even psychotic episodes. And the number of reported poison cases in Pasco and Hernando counties is on the rise.

The trend has spurred action at every level of government.

On Wednesday, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration extended its temporary ban of five chemicals used in the products. States are creating their own laws, even as manufacturers alter the ingredients to try to skirt the bans.

The Florida Legislature is poised to pass a new law that adds compounds to the list of those already banned, and Hernando school officials are adding the products to their list of banned substances.

Vice detectives for the Pasco Sheriff’s Office are buying packages and sending them off to labs to be tested for illegal ingredients. And last week, Hernando deputies fanned out across the county to warn retailers that the products on their shelves might already contain illegal ingredients and that a host of other products will probably be outlawed soon, too.

The products can be purchased on the Internet, but Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis said he hopes the education campaign will make it more difficult for county residents — especially teens — to walk into a store and pay cash.

“It should concern these businesses that they could be doing some damage to their customers,” Nienhuis said. “We want to make sure we educate them so they cannot claim ignorance.”

• • •

Karen Arsenault wrinkled her nose Monday when Hernando Deputy Abraham Dowdell explained why he had come calling to Deep Blue Liquors.

“Our owners are highly, highly against that, so no worries here,” said Arsenault, a clerk at the store on County Line Road in Spring Hill.

By the end of last week, deputies had visited all of the 110 retailers on their list. Of those, 19 carried incense or potpourri products.

Several store owners and managers said they don’t carry the products because of health concerns and legal dangers. Some decided to take the products off the shelves before deputies left their stores.

Other retailers worried about losing money on inventory, said Hernando Sheriff’s Sgt. John Cameron. A Spring Hill liquor store owner who had just received a new shipment said she planned to sell the rest of it but would get rid of whatever she has left when the new law takes effect.

So far, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office’s random tests haven’t turned up any illegal substances, said spokesman Kevin Doll.

Synthetic cannabinoids were born in 1995 in a Clemson University laboratory, with medical research in mind. They are structurally different from tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, but they have the same biological effects on the human body.

The compound was first disclosed in a research paper in 1998, and entrepreneurs apparently re-created the chemical for commercial sale.

In 2010, the DEA announced its intention to ban five synthetic compounds by characterizing them as Schedule I narcotics, the most restrictive category under the Controlled Substances Act. The ban took effect last March.

The six-month extension issued last week gives the agency’s researchers more time to study the myriad compounds that crop up in various products and decide how to permanently schedule the drugs, said DEA spokesman Jeffrey Scott.

It’s a big challenge as manufacturers tweak chemical compounds and change the names of products, Scott said.

“It’s something of a game of whack-a-mole at the moment,” he said.

Most of the chemicals are imported from manufacturers in other countries, especially China, but underground labs in the United States increasingly are producing and synthesizing them. The DEA is investigating several large-scale importers and distributors, Scott said.

Florida’s law took effect last summer, making sale or possession of more than 3 grams of the compounds a third-degree felony. Possession of 3 grams or less is a misdemeanor.

Attorney General Pam Bondi advocated for the legislation pending this session that will add to the list of banned chemical compounds in fake pot and bath salts, another stealth drug.

Marijuana shows up in field tests, giving deputies probable cause for an arrest, but there isn’t yet a field test for synthetic pot. Authorities can write a report and send the material off to the lab for testing. If tests come back positive for the banned compounds, the State Attorney’s Office can elect to prosecute.

That hasn’t happened in Hernando yet, but it eventually will, said Assistant State Attorney Sonny McCathran.

Statistics indicate use of the products is on the rise, despite the bans.

The number of poison cases involving synthetic marijuana reported in Florida in 2010 doubled last year, to nearly 500, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

The numbers are increasing locally, too, with 23 reported cases in Pasco last year and six in Hernando. Health officials say many people don’t report adverse effects or tell emergency room staffers that they smoked the products, though, so the numbers could be much higher.

The synthetic compounds bind and “hijack” brain receptors involved in an array of critical body functions, such as memory, motor control and decision making, said Marilyn A. Huestis, chemistry and drug metabolism chief at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Some of the compounds are many times stronger than THC, and the negative effects appear to be greater, too, Huestis said. Because products are manufactured without regulation, they could contain toxic contaminants.

The longtime physical and psychological effects are unclear. As a researcher, Huestis gives drugs to volunteers to study their effects on the body. She won’t do the same with these products — and the Food and Drug Administration wouldn’t let her if she wanted to — because of how little is known about them, she said.

That means active users are, in effect, making themselves lab rats.

“They’re experimenting on themselves with very dangerous chemicals,” Huestis said.

• • •

One day in January, someone tipped off administrators at Powell Middle School in Spring Hill that a student had some fake pot in his bookbag.

The boy admitted he smoked it, said Cameron, the Hernando sheriff’s sergeant who also supervises school resource officers.

“He said it helps him relax,” Cameron said.

Last week, a Hernando High student was caught with fake pot he said he bought at a downtown Brooksville gas station. As of last week, there had been seven or eight synthetic marijuana cases this school year in Hernando County, said Ricardo Jaquez, the district’s lead substance abuse educator.

The products are not currently on the list of banned substances in the Hernando student code of conduct, but likely will be by next school year, Jaquez said. Students found in possession of the products are interviewed and typically referred for drug counseling.

The Pasco school district considers fake pot banned “look-alike substances,” a spokeswoman said.

Anti-drug activists applauded the effort to educate retailers.

“If they start feeling some pressure about this product, they might figure it’s just not worth it,” said Sandra Marrero, vice president of the Hernando County Community Anti-Drug Coalition. “We already have enough problems with the drugs we have on the street.”

• • •

Last week, Susan Casiglia happened to walk into a Brooksville BP station not far from her apartment to find Deputy Dowdell talking to the woman behind the counter.

Flanking the woman were three display cases full of fake pot products: Cloud 9, Mad Hatter, Scooby Snax.

Most or all of it will probably be illegal soon, Dowdell told her. The woman, who turned out to be the owner and declined to give her name to a Times reporter, told Dowdell she was a single mom who worked hard to provide for her family, so she didn’t want any trouble.

As Casiglia waited in line, the owner started to stuff the packets and jars into a plastic bag. A few minutes later, the display cases sat empty.

“Thank God,” Casiglia said.

Authorities Confiscated Spice, ‘Bath Salts’ Assorted Paraphernalia and Weapons from Maple Valley Tobacco Shop

The King County Sheriff’s Office announced Friday that detectives seized more than one-and-a-half pounds of ‘spice,’ a small amount of ‘bath salts’ and numerous other drug paraphernalia as well as illegal weapons from a Maple Valley tobacco store.

The search of Tobacco Depot on the 26900 block of Maple Valley/Black Diamond Road on July 12 was the culmination of an eight-month long investigation into complaints of unlawful activity at the store, according to a Sheriff’s Office press release.

The driver for the investigation was the reported sale of ‘spice’ at the location. ‘Spice’ is a synthetic marijuana product that consists of green vegetation that resembles marijuana which is then coated in chemicals that mimic the euphoric effects of marijuana when it is smoked. The product is often marketed as ‘potpourri,’ said the Sheriff’s Office.

In December of 2011, the active chemicals in ‘spice’ were categorized as Schedule I controlled substances. According to the DEA, Schedule I substances “have a high potential for abuse, have no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.”

Other substances in this category include heroine, LSD, marijuana, peyote, and ‘ecstacy.’

During the investigation detectives also discovered that the owner of the business was selling illegal weapons such as brass knuckles, butterfly knives and nun-chucks.

In addition to selling illegal weapons the suspect was also selling glass “crack pipes” and glass pipes and bongs commonly used to smoke marijuana.  These pipes are used for the ingestion of crack cocaine or methamphetamine.

Maple Valley Municipal Code (MVMC 9.05.240) makes it illegal to sell drug paraphernalia unless proper signage is posted indicating that such items are for sale in the business, and that persons under the age of 18 are not allowed inside unless accompanied by a parent.  These legible signs did not exist at the business.

During the service of the warrant, detectives found hundreds of crack pipes, thousands of 1”x1” baggies (commonly used to package drugs for sale), nitrous oxide containers (over 1300 individual doses) and small inhalers used to ingest nitrous oxide (commonly called “whippits”).

Detectives also confiscated a number of illegal weapons including 10 sets of nun-chucks, 20 sets of metal knuckles, 1 set of electrified metal knuckles, and 3 butterfly knives.

On the Plateau, the Foothills Healthy Community Coalition (FHCC) is currently working collaboratively with area agencies to develop a community action plan and to initiate a preventative substance use program. Many of the substances seized during this search are among what experts say are prevalent in this area. For more information on the FHCC, you can contact Heather Hogan, the youth substance abuse prevention specialist at 360-802-3206 or The FHCC is supported in part by the Enumclaw Regional Healthcare Foundation.

NY Makes ‘Synthetic Marijuana’ Illegal

New York State is banning a group of substances sold legally as incense, but often smoked for their marijuana-like effect.

The products come under many names, including Spice, K2, Skunk and Mr. Nice Guy.  Their active ingredients mimic the effect of THC, the active substance in marijuana.   These compounds are not yet controlled by federal law, but health officials and legislatures in 40 states around the country have grown sufficiently concerned about their side effects to outlaw all “synthetic cannabinoids,” as they’re officially called.

“They have some effects that are similar to marijuana, but they have toxic effects that are really unknown,” New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said. “We’ve had case reports of adverse reactions — an increased number of case reports — and we know that’s just the tip of the iceberg, that there may be many more incidents that we don’t know about.”

The city’s Poison Control Center received four calls related to synthetic marijuana in 2010, 71 calls last year and 44 calls in the first three months of 2012.

Dr. David Lee, a toxicologist and emergency-room physician at Northshore-LIJ Hospital in Manhasset, said the numbers are still relatively low, but they’ve been climbing — even in suburban Nassau County. About once a month, he and his colleagues see someone in the E.R. who says they’ve used the drugs.

“They will typically have chest pains, palpitation, high levels of anxiety, feelings of losing self-control,” Lee said.

A young man actually showed Dr. Lee’s team a packet of the drug and told them about a nearby bodega where he got it, but when one physician went to the store to try to purchase it, the store-owner said he didn’t carry the product.

Jay Miranda works at a shop on 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village that sells a version of the synthetic pot. She says her customers have had a range of reactions to it.  “Its like a 50-50, some people say they like it, its pretty good and some people don’t like it because they’re used to the real thing.”

She says it’s not just kids that have tried it. “I get people in the military, teachers, or people in rehab trying to pass their drug test,” she explained. “There’s always a market for people seeking the next thrill.”

Queens resident David Brightman falls in the camp that doesn’t like it. He supports the ban, especially since he tried the synthetic version. “It gave me a headache, it felt like my chest was caving in, my heart rate increased, it was just a crazy experience. I’d rather drink liquor and have a good time.”

It’s not clear how prevalent synthetic marijuana use is. According to one phone survey by the National Institute for Drug Abuse — a division of the National Institutes of Health —11 percent of high school seniors said they had tried it.

The ban comes as an executive order from Governor Andrew Cuomo and is effective immediately. New York City issued its own parallel ban, for largely procedural reasons.  Health Commissioner Farley said the city will be sending out warnings to all  retailers that sell cigarettes and will be making inspections of some stores and bodegas.

Dr. Guohua Li, who studies social patterns of substance abuse at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said outlawing synthetic marijuana is a good step, but thinks there are further challenges ahead.

“Much of it is sold on the internet, so enforcement will not be easy,” Li said. “Outlawing it nationally would help.”

Of the ten states which have not yet banned synthetic marijuana, most are in the East Coast, including New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maryland.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) has authored a bill that would add synthetic marijuana to the federal registry of controlled substances, but Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has opposed the measure, saying it’s too broad.

Kathleen Horan contributed to this report.