Background. Globally, illicit drugs are responsible for many fatalities annually, yet accurate data on the nature and extent of these deaths
in South Africa (SA) are lacking.
Objectives. To investigate the presence and profile of illicit drugs detected in deceased persons who were subjected to medicolegal autopsies
and upon whom analyses were carried out in search of illicit drugs in their body fluids at the Pretoria Medico-Legal Laboratory (PMLL),
SA, over a 10-year period.
METHODS. A retrospective descriptive case audit was conducted for the period 2003 - 2012.
RESULTS. Screening for illicit drugs was requested in 385 out of 22 566 medicolegal autopsies. Results were available for only 281 of these
cases, with 154 cases showing the presence of one or more illicit drugs. The demographic profile of positive cases indicated the majority
to be male (90.3%) and white (85.1%). Decedents who tested positive for illicit drugs were predominantly aged between 20 and 30 years
(51.9%). The most frequently detected drug was heroin, the presence of which was confirmed in 35.2% of cases, followed by cocaine in
19.9%. Alcohol in combination with an illicit drug or drugs was detected in 56 cases (36.4%).
CONCLUSIONS. Results from this study indicate that illicit drugs were implicated in a considerable number of fatalities in Pretoria. However,
it is believed that the figures are a gross under-representation of the actual number of drug users who died during this period. It is therefore
recommended that further research be conducted and that drug screening be requested routinely when unnatural deaths are investigated at
medicolegal mortuaries, not only to ensure the administration of justice but also to obtain more accurate data for purposes of public health
programmes and improve insight into the burden of illicit drug use in SA.