Drug use in young adults is on the rise. While all drugs can be dangerous, it’s important to stay informed and understand which drugs are most likely to be life-threatening when used. Professor David Nutt, one of the world’s leading experts on drugs (in terms of their use and effects on the brain), led a scientific study specifically designed to determine what is the most dangerous drug in the world. Published in 2010, the analysis of the adverse effects of drugs—both legal and illegal—examined sixteen parameters, including both direct and indirect effects. Parameters for this study included:
- Physical injury
- Impairment of mental function
- Criminal activities
- Loss of tangible things such as housing and employment
Additionally, the study included the effects of drugs on others and society as a whole. While the group conducting the study agreed upon the sixteen parameters, their importance and weight in the overall ranking brought forth many different viewpoints.
The Most Harmful Drugs to the Body
Primarily due to its potential to cause harm to those who aren’t using it, alcohol was found to be the most dangerous by a landslide, followed by heroin, crack cocaine, methamphetamine, and cocaine.
Heroin and crack cocaine ranked significantly closer to alcohol due to the harm they cause to users, although they had a high ranking under “harm to others” as well. Drugs such as ecstasy and LSD were ranked as some of the least harmful drugs, while tobacco fell right behind cocaine, beating marijuana in overall harm.
Click on the substance to learn more about how and why it is considered one of the world’s most dangerous drugs.
A Breakdown of the Most Dangerous Drugs
Alcohol: Alcohol is responsible for 3.3 million deaths worldwide every year. It is one of the most prevalently abused substances globally and one of the first substances adolescents and young adults experiment with. In 2013, 86.8 percent of people 18 years or older admitted to using alcohol at least once in their lifetime, with about 24.6 percent reportedly engaging in binge drinking within the past month.
Alcohol abuse can cause a number of short-term and long-term effects. Alcohol can cause vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, impaired judgment, unconsciousness, blackouts, and coma. It can also lead to unintentional injuries, increased family problems, broken relationships, loss of employment, heart-related diseases including stroke and high blood pressure, liver damage, and permanent brain damage. Learn more about alcohol addiction treatment.
Heroin: Heroin addiction has spiked dramatically in recent years due to prescription drug abuse. The increased availability of prescription painkillers and opioids has created a new generation of addicts. Prescription opioids are highly addictive and the addiction is expensive to maintain. Many who develop an addiction to opioids turn to heroin as a cheaper and more accessible option. Learn more about:
In 2013, 500,000 Americans admitted to using heroin within the past year. The drug causes a number of effects including depressed breathing, bad teeth, depression, insomnia, and coma. Many who use the drug are at an increased risk for contracting infections such as HIV and hepatitis due to sharing needles with others. Learn more about heroin withdrawal symptoms.
Crack cocaine: Crack was introduced in the 1980s as a cheaper alternative to cocaine. It was designed to specifically target residents of inner cities and has led to an increase in crime and medical complications. Although cocaine is more popular than crack cocaine, the drug is growing in popularity and use. It is now being widely used by students and those with families and careers.
Crack is often mixed with other substances, making the drug more potent and unpredictable. Users may experience heart attack, stroke, seizures, or respiratory failure. Over a long period of time, crack use can cause severe damage to the heart, lungs, and kidneys, respiratory issues, malnutrition, and an increased likelihood of catching an infectious disease. Learn more about cocaine addiction.
Methamphetamine: Approximately 11 million Americans have admitted to using meth at least once in their lives. When it was first created in 1887, methamphetamine was used to treat a number of disorders including narcolepsy, depression, obesity, and behavioral issues. The drug eventually became restricted as a prescription drug, but it is still widely available on black markets.
Meth can cause sleeplessness, loss of appetite, increased blood pressure, paranoia, and depression. In most cases, the drug is not “instantly addictive,” but prolonged use leads to the development of tolerance and dependency. Meth can cause irreversible harm including damaged blood vessels, stroke, liver damage, kidney damage, brain damage, severe tooth decay, psychosis, and increased risk for infectious diseases. Learn more about signs and symptoms of meth addiction.
Cocaine: In 2006, 35.3 million Americans ages 12 and older reported using cocaine at least once in their lives. The drug produces intense highs that are relatively short-lived, often ending in deep depression and an intense craving for the drug. Many who use the drug experience increased heart rate, muscle spasms, and convulsions. Regardless of how frequently or infrequently they take the drug, cocaine users are at an increased risk to experience heart attacks, strokes, seizures, and respiratory failure. Cocaine interferes with the way the brain processes chemicals, making the body crave the drug in order to feel “normal.” Long-term cocaine use without cocaine addiction treatment can cause permanent damage to blood vessels, malnutrition, severe tooth decay, hallucinations, psychosis, and severe depression.
What Makes One Drug More Dangerous Than Another?
Although many people consider more illicit drugs such as cocaine “more dangerous” due to factors such as legal status, the effects of alcohol on both users and society are much more dangerous and costly. Alcohol is directly responsible for numerous diseases, including cardiovascular and neurological disorders. It is also linked to traffic accidents and fatalities, as well as more promiscuous sexual behavior that puts individuals at a higher risk of contracting a number of diseases and infections.
Furthermore, alcohol use is costly from an economic perspective, as it forces many people to seek treatment for alcohol-related ailments and problems. The most dramatic statistic regarding the dangers of alcohol comes from the World Health Organization (WHO), which estimates that 3.3 million deaths every year are caused by harmful use of alcohol, equaling approximately one person every ten seconds.
The Level of Danger Is Dependent Upon Perspective
The question of the most dangerous drug in the world is, it turns out, a matter of perspective. Many people believe illegal drugs are far more dangerous than legal ones, although this can be somewhat arbitrary because drugs have varying legal statuses across countries and throughout history.
For example, heroin has been regularly used in the U.K. in the past to treat heroin addicts by prescribing small doses to help wean people off the drug. Since its status changed, the number of heroin addicts rose dramatically from an estimated 1,000 in 1971 to approximately 200,000 by 1990. The legal status of drugs is often used as a political tool as well.
Despite marijuana being criminalized in most U.S. states, scientific evidence suggests it is nowhere near as dangerous as alcohol, and enforcing its illegality is costing the U.S. billions of dollars every year. Many suggest that legalizing marijuana in the states could actually earn the U.S. billions of dollars in taxes every year and further reduce its dangers. The crime associated with the production, sale, and distribution of marijuana makes the drug far more dangerous than it would be otherwise, and legalizing marijuana removes it from the grip of the criminal organizations that currently profit from the drug.
The results of this study call into question our views of drugs and how we treat substance abuse across the globe. Many people take an absolutist view in which all drugs are extremely dangerous and must be made unavailable at any cost, while the findings of this study suggest that the most widely accessible, legal substance is by far the most dangerous and deadly of them all.
If we view the most relevant harm caused by drugs as their effects on users, then drug addiction problems must be viewed and treated as health issues, not criminal issues. For instance, alcoholism and alcohol-related problems are currently treated as health issues, while addiction to heroin is treated as a criminal issue above all else. While all drugs are dangerous to a certain degree, their legal status is not what determines their level of danger.
Experimenting With The Most Dangerous Drugs
If you know a young adult who might be experiencing with one of these dangerous drugs, the best time to intervene is now. Call Sober College at 800.465.0142 or fill out a contact form to get familiar with treatment options.