Fact Check-No evidence drug overdose was main cause of death for George Floyd in 2020

Social media users are reviving a claim that George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man killed in May 2020 actually died due to a drug overdose. These claims are misleading, as official medical and court records ruled that police restraint, not drug use, was the main cause of death and evidence does not support the claim that Floyd had lethal levels of drugs in his system.

One Twitter user sharing the claim said, “George Floyd died of fentanyl overdose. Derek Chauvin should be freed” (here). A Facebook user repeated the claim, adding that “We had entire buildings burned to the ground over a junkie OD'ing” (here).

However, no publicly-available evidence supports the claim that Floyd died from overdosing on drugs, specifically fentanyl and methamphetamine, rather than from the actions of law enforcement officers.

Derek Chauvin was convicted in April 2021 of murdering Floyd (here)

Medical examiners and independent experts testified in the Chauvin trial that while Floyd suffered from heart disease and hypertension, and toxicology tests showed recent use of the two drugs, none of these was the cause of Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020. Medical examiners ruled the death a homicide because law enforcement officers compressed Floyd against the road in a way that starved his body of oxygen, known as asphyxia, leading to cardiopulmonary arrest.

“There’s no evidence to suggest he would have died that night except for the interactions with law enforcement,” Dr. Lindsey Thomas, Hennepin County Minnesota’s assistant medical examiner until 2017, testified to a jury during the Chauvin trial.

The Hennepin County Medical Examiner ruled Floyd’s death a homicide with the cause of death as “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint and neck compression” (here).

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was recorded on video kneeling on a handcuffed Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes during an arrest in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020 (here).

A detailed autopsy report and a toxicology report by NMS Labs made public with the consent of Floyd’s family and legal representatives said that Floyd had visible blunt force injuries on his body, including on his face and arm, and that a blood screen revealed his fentanyl levels at 11 ng/mL, norfentanyl at 5.6 ng/mL, and methamphetamine at 19 ng/mL (here).

During the murder trial for Chauvin, whose lawyers argued that Floyd had died as a result of a drug overdose, Dr. Andrew Baker, Hennepin County’s chief medical examiner, reiterated his autopsy findings. Reuters reported on Baker’s April 9, 2021 testimony (here) and a video can be seen (here), (here).

“Mr. Floyd’s use of fentanyl did not cause the subdual or the neck restraint, his heart disease did not cause the subdual or the neck restraint,” Baker told the jury. He added that while Floyd suffered from heart disease, and fentanyl and methamphetamine found in his blood may have played a role in the death, they “were not direct causes.”

Dr. Daniel Isenschmid, a forensic toxicologist, testified during Chauvin’s trial that the level of methamphetamine found in Floyd’s blood was comparable to levels found in samples taken from living people detained for driving under the influence of narcotics (here).

The sheer volume of videos of Floyd’s arrest makes it clear that physical signs associated with opioid overdose were not seen in the moments before his death, Dr. Lindsey Thomas, an assistant Hennepin County medical examiner until 2017, also testified during Chauvin’s trial.

Under cross examination by Chauvin’s lead lawyer, Baker said that certain heart diseases or use of opioids can be fatal but that neither directly caused Floyd’s death. Instead, he believed it was the holds and compression by police officers.

“My opinion remains unchanged: it’s what I put on the death certificate last June,” Baker said to the jury. “That was my top line then. It would stay my top line now.”

Other medical experts supported Baker’s findings during the trial. Dr. Martin Tobin, a critical care doctor, testified that any “healthy person subjected to” Floyd’s circumstances “would have died” (here).

Reuters reporting on additional expert testimony during the trial that countered the defense’s claim that opioid use caused Floyd’s death can be found (here), (here), (here) and (here).

One of the recent posts on social media claiming that Floyd overdosed also points to a published study as evidence that the drug levels in Floyd’s system could have been lethal (here)

This post includes screenshots from a report published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) (here) describing an “extraordinary opioid overdose outbreak” in New Haven, Connecticut, that resulted in at least 12 cases brought to area hospitals over six hours, including two that died. The author of this post wrote that “Most people die at 9 ng/mL. He (Floyd) had 11 ng/mL and a ton of other shit in his system...”

The MMWR case report describes each patient’s toxicology results, noting that fentanyl “postmortem levels in the first two patients who died were 11 ng/mL (patient E) and 13 ng/mL (patient I),” with patient E being a male in his 70s and patient I being a female in her 30s.

Peter T. Lin, a forensic and general autopsy pathologist (here), told Reuters that fentanyl levels alone are not a clear indicator of the cause and manner of death, as the process depends on “the totality of the facts involving a particular case – not a simple number on a toxicology report.”

“There is no such thing as a ‘fatal drug concentration’ because many other factors must be considered beyond the postmortem drug concentration,” Lin said. “An important concept in cause of death determination is that multiple potential causes may be present and it is the job of the certifying medical examiner to sort through those potential causes and choose a primary cause and/or multiple contributory causes.”

Lin, who has previously worked for the New York City chief medical examiner’s office, co-authored a study on the reliability of postmortem fentanyl levels when determining the cause of death (here). It concluded that “the very wide and overlapping ranges of postmortem fentanyl concentrations effectively nullify the utility of correlating the dose and expected postmortem concentration for any particular death” and that “toxicology results are only one datum point among several that are considered” when determining cause of death.

Lin explained to Reuters that among the myriad factors to weigh when determining the significance of a postmortem toxicology test result is “whether the drug was or was not having any apparent effect (such as lethargy, slurred speech, etc.) shortly prior to death” and “any other external factors such as trauma.”

Indeed, “whether the fentanyl could have been considered a contributory cause to the compression is a reasonable point of debate, since both neck compression and fentanyl would cause respiratory difficulty,” Lin said. But the fentanyl levels in Floyd’s blood should not be the sole factor in determining his cause of death.

“To say that the death was due to fentanyl alone based only on a drug concentration of 11 ng/ml, and to ignore the neck compression entirely, would stretch the bounds of credulity,” Lin said.


Misleading. Available evidence about George Floyd’s death and toxicology test results do not show that his main cause of death was a drug overdose and toxicology results alone cannot identify a lethal level of fentanyl or other drugs in the body.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts here .