Florida Study Links Cannabis to 386 Deaths Over 6 Years

Although the findings raise concerns, the figures for cannabis-related deaths in Florida pale when compared with opioids and alcohol.

Cannabis and synthetic cannabis have been linked to nearly 400 deaths in Florida between 2014 and 2020, a new study shows.

Researchers from Florida Atlantic University Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing, using state law enforcement data, identified 386 people whose deaths were linked to cannabis use. Of these, 258 fatalities were linked to synthetic cannabis, and nearly 65% of these deaths involved synthetic cannabis as the only drug involved.

“Synthetic cannabinoids are part of the new psychoactive substances that are two to 100 times more potent than THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana,” says study senior author Armiel Suriaga, PhD, an assistant professor at Lynn College. “Synthetic cannabinoids are manufactured chemicals sprayed onto dried, shredded leaves or plant materials that mimic the effect of cannabis, but their actual effects are unpredictable, harmful and deadly.”  

Although the findings are a cause of concern, the figures for cannabis-related deaths in Florida pale when compared with other drugs and alcohol. For example, the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics reports that excessive drinking results in 10,655 deaths each year in Florida, and that the five-year average annual rate of excessive alcohol deaths per capita in the Sunshine State increased by 54% from 2015 to 2019. The NCDAS data shows that Florida averages about 3,200 opioids-related deaths each year.

Florida legalized medical cannabis in 2014 and has seen a 1,107% increase in the number of people carrying medical cannabis cards, from about 65,310 cardholders in 2018 to 788,297 as of Jan. 27, the study reports.

The results, published in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship, show that nearly 28% of the dead were ages 45–54  years, compared to 9% ages 8 to 24, demographic disparities that researchers attribute to health conditions in older people, such as cardiovascular diseases.

Among the study’s findings:

  • Nearly 88% of the deaths were among men.
  • Approximately 65% were non-Hispanic whites.
  • 100% of cannabis-related deaths occurred in urban counties.
  • In rural counties, 28% of deaths were related to synthetic cannabis, and 40% were African American.

Nearly all (99%) of the deaths were from drug overdoses (84%) and motor vehicular crashes (14%) that caused blunt traumas to the head and body. More crash-related deaths were traced to cannabis use rather than synthetic cannabis use. Four people died from drowning while on cannabis.

“The persistent deaths from cannabis and synthetic cannabis use are a legitimate public health concern,” Suriaga says. “The public should remain vigilant of the adverse health outcomes associated with these substances and their unpredictable effects, especially for men who are disproportionately affected, and particularly for people with underlying cardiovascular and respiratory conditions.”

John Commins is a content specialist and online news editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.

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