Public Safety

Medical Examiner: Drug- and Alcohol-related Deaths Up

Designer drug deaths remain a concern for the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office.

After a dip in 2014, unintentional deaths due to drugs or alcohol were up again last year, according to data from the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s 2015 Annual Report, which gives an overview of deaths investigated by the office.

Drugs or alcohol accounted for 510 unintentional deaths in the county last year. Methamphetamine remains the number one cause of drug deaths, at 212 cases, followed by alcohol with 110 deaths. Heroin deaths were next with 90 cases, and it was the most commonly seen substance in those 20-29 years old.

Novel psychoactive substances – often referred to as “designer drugs” – accounted for 11 deaths, the most ever. Seven deaths were due to drugs similar to fentanyl and four to mitragynine, also known as kratom, an opioid made from plants.

Chief Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Jonathan Lucas said his office will continue to closely monitor deaths related to these synthetic substances, which continue to evolve.

“Despite the low numbers, we are keeping our eyes on acetyl-fentanyl, kratom, spice, bath salts, and other rather obscure substances,” Lucas said. “So far, we’ve had very small numbers of cases compared to other areas, but they are a concern.”

Meanwhile, the number of prescription drug-related deaths increased slightly with 249 cases compared to 245 cases in 2014.

The overall number of deaths remained about the same, with roughly 20,000 deaths recorded in the County annually. Deaths obviously due to natural causes are not usually investigated by the Medical Examiner, so the remaining cases, approximately 8,700, are referred to the Medical Examiner. Of those, about 5,700 cases are then determined after an initial review to be sudden, unexpected natural deaths with about 3,000 cases further investigated.

The data in the report focuses on the 2,996 cases in 2015 that were fully investigated by the Medical Examiner. The percentages of cases are similar to previous years with the largest portion, 46 percent or 1,384 cases, determined to be accidental deaths. After that, 34 percent or 1,026 cases, were found to be natural deaths; 14 percent, or 427 cases, were suicides; 4 percent, or 105 cases, were homicides; and for 2 percent, or 53 cases, the manner of death were undetermined.

Motor vehicle-related fatalities accounted for 302 cases in 2015, up slightly from 291 the previous year. Accidental pedestrian deaths made up 89 of those cases, not including another one ruled a homicide and another two determined to be suicide. Additional motor vehicle-related victims included 107 drivers, 37 passengers, and four cases in which it was unclear whether they were drivers or passengers. There were also 47 motorcyclists, nine cyclists, plus one other determined to be a homicide.

In the deaths investigated by the Medical Examiner attributed entirely to natural causes, the vast majority, or 659 cases, were due to cardiovascular disease, 98 cases were alcohol-related, 45 cases were due to cancer, 42 cases were central nervous system-related, 41 were pulmonary, and 27 were infectious disease-related.

The number of local suicides rose slightly during 2015, with 427 deaths, compared to 420 in 2014. The County’s suicide rate is 13 per 100,000, higher than the state’s rate of 10.5, but very similar to the national rate of 13.1.

As in previous years in San Diego County, the Medical Examiner’s department found the highest rate of suicide among men older than 85 years old.

The County urges anyone who is struggling with depression or is concerned about a loved one to seek out free mental health and substance abuse counseling. Call the County’s Behavioral Health Access and Crisis Line at (888) 724-7240. Suicide prevention and awareness information is also available at

Yvette Urrea Moe is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact