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In 1980, before California and the United States embarked on a massive War on Drugs” to arrest and imprison rising tens of thousands of drug users, a total of 1,480 residents died from overdoses or chronic abuse of illicit drugs. That constituted 7.7% of the state’s death toll from all external causes (that is, accidents, suicides, murders, and violent deaths of undetermined intent).

After nearly three decades of drug war, just-released Center for Health Statistics figures show a record 4,196 Californians died directly from abusing illicit drugs – nearly one-fourth of all premature, non-natural deaths in the state. Drug abuse has soared above all other major external risks and is now the state’s No. 1 premature killer:

Deaths in CaliforniaDrug abuse (illicit)Traffic crashesSuicides (all)Homicides (all)Firearms (all)AIDS


20084,196 3,6463,7862,2861,519951

Rate change*+ 77% — 63%- 32%- 60%- 77%na

*after factoring in state population increase.

There’s no other statistic that documents the disastrous failure of the War on Drugs than skyrocketing drug overdose – a death cause that increased sharply even as all other major causes fell. Equally troubling is the spread of drug deaths from middle-aged groups (who accounted for all of the increase from 1980 to 2000) to younger ages in the last decade. 

After falling sharply for 30 years, drug deaths among Californians ages 15 – 24 suddenly have tripled since 2000, reaching 300 in 2008. This parallels continued surges in drug mortality among their parents age 45 – 54 (up from 823 deaths in 2000 to 1,388 in 2008) and 55 – 64 (234 in 2000, 769 in 2008). This pattern disturbingly recalls the 1960s, when middle-aged barbiturate abuse spread to younger ages, foretelling four decades of epidemic Baby Boomer drug abuse that is now filling morgues and prisons. Age 15 – 24 drug deaths haven’t yet reached Boomer youths’ record toll of 1970, when 644 died from overdoses, but the recent surge is a bad sign.

Not only has California’s drug war proven futile and destructive when it comes to the fundamental goal of reducing drug abuse, it has actually gotten worse. As hard-drug and pharmaceutical narcotic abuse skyrocketed over the last 15 years, California drug-war and law enforcement interests increasingly have obsessed over boosting simple marijuana possession busts. Only strong legislative and voter intervention can reverse such entrenched oblivion.