Taken alone, narcotics are deadly enough, but when an addict starts mixing drugs, it gets even riskier. Deaths from mixed drug overdoses date back decades — famously “The Wizard of Oz” star Judy Garland and American icon Elvis Presley. They should serve as cautionary tales, but the addict does not think rationally.
A recent string of high-profile accidental overdoses involving addicts mixing drugs serves as a reminder about the dangers of multiplying these poisons.
Last year, Chris Kelly, half of the ’90s rap duo Kris Kross, died at 34 after mixing heroin and cocaine. It was believed by his family that the long-time addict was possibly in the early stages of heroin withdrawal, and that he took the cocaine to relieve his nausea and other symptoms. Mixing heroin and cocaine is often termed “speedballing.” Chris Farley, River Phoenix and John Belushi all reportedly died from a heroin-cocaine speedball.
Addicts who relapse may be at the greatest risk of overdosing, experts say, because their drug tolerance drops when they stop using. The addict mistakenly believes that he or she needs to use the same amount of the drug that was consumed in the past, but a reduced tolerance developed during stages of sobriety can result in a fatal overdose.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that drug overdoses have steadily risen in the U.S. over the last two generations. Painkillers cause more overdoses than heroin, but the substances are often mixed, and heroin overdoses are on the increase. Overdose deaths from heroin have increased recently, and in 2011, 4.2 million Americans 11 years and older tried heroin one or more times.
Three other grim CDC statistics:
1. Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. spiked 102% from 1999 to 2010.
2. They were the leading cause of injury death in 2010, with 105 people daily dying of drug overdose and an additional 6,748 rushed to hospital emergency rooms for overdose treatment.
3. For people ages 24 to 46, death by drug overdoses eclipsed fatal traffic accidents.
The most common drugs found in overdoses, according to a CDC report updated in February 2014:
- Sixty percent of the 38,329 drug overdose deaths in the United States, or 22,134 in 2010,were related to pharmaceuticals (as opposed to heroin or cocaine).
- Of the 22,134 deaths relating to prescription drug overdose that year, 16,651 or 75 percent involved opioid pain relievers or prescription painkillers, and 6,497 and 30 percent involved benzodiazepines.
- In 2011, about 1.4 million emergency room visits involved “the nonmedical use of pharmaceuticals. Among those [ER] visits, 501,207 visits were related to anti-anxiety and insomnia medications, and 420,040 visits were related to opioid analgesics.”
- Benzodiazepines are frequently found among people treated in ERs for misusing or abusing drugs. People who died of drug overdoses often had a combination of benzodiazepines and opioid analgesics in their bodies.
Mixing Alcohol With Illegal Drugs
Research shows that mixing cocaine with alcohol can have fatal results. When combined with alcohol, cocaine increases the heart rate three to five times as much as when either drug is taken alone, often leading to heart attacks and heart failure, according to the Wellness Center at Santa Clara University. When alcohol is used with other depressants, such as benzodiazepines or heroin, it can lead to coma or death, and the more drugs taken in combination with alcohol, the harder it is to predict the effects the combination will have.
One new drug is proving promising as something that may help reduce the risk of accidental overdose.
Dr. David Sack, CEO of Elements Behavioral Health and an addiction expert, calls the new drug called naltrexone a significant treatment development. Under the name Vivitrol, and dosed by injection every 30 days, it doesn’t simply replace one addictive substance with another, such as methadone.
“Vivitrol is really the most important treatment we have today,” Sack told TheFix.com. “It does two things: one, it prevents the addict from overdosing because it specifically blocks the opiate receptor in the brain — that’s the place that regulates pain, moods and respiration. So it’s going to be difficult for an addict to overdose. But even more than that, it decreases cravings so the person won’t be desiring the drug as much as before.”