Drug policy reform is a pressing issue these days, with many American states legalizing or decriminalizing cannabis, and many more countries also going through their own legal overhauls. Opponents of legalization warn that legalizing drugs will only lead to more widespread abuse. Proponents often fall back on the fact that alcohol, a drug notorious for how dangerous it is, is legal pretty much everywhere.
Not only is alcohol dangerous, there’s good reason to believe it is significantly more dangerous than many of the drugs that people aren't able to obtain illegally. Tens of thousands of people die of alcohol poisoning each year in the U.S. alone, and then there are those fatalities that are indirectly caused by alcohol consumption - accidents resulting from irresponsible behaviours - as well as the slow poisoning of long-term abusers.
In 2007, a group of British scientists published a list of drugs, ranked by how dangerous they are to the user and to society at large. Of the 20 on the list, only four drugs beat out alcohol as being more dangerous: Heroin, cocaine, barbiturates, and street methadone. The following are ten commonly used drugs that rank as less dangerous than alcohol, many of which are illegal to use recreationally, in descending order of dangerousness.
Note that these are not all of the drugs on the original list, nor all the drugs that are less dangerous than alcohol. None of the statements herein are endorsements of illegal drug use.
Also known as “Special K” or horse tranquilizer, ketamine is a psychedelic and sedative, often used in surgery for all kinds of animals – not just horses.
Ketamine fatalities are rare, and typically involve the user either taking another substance along with it, or engaging in dangerous activity. Quoting a finding from a 2000 report, the WHO says that of 87 “ketamine-positive deaths” included in the report, “in no instance was fatal intoxication caused exclusively by ketamine.”
Effects of ketamine include, but are not limited to, euphoria, increased energy, slurred speech, nausea, distortion of sensory perception, and disorganised thinking.
Also known as “speed,” and legally sold as “Adderall”, amphetamine is a stimulant, with users claiming positive effects including heightened alertness, increased confidence, and the feeling of being more energetic. Negative effects can include paranoia, hallucinations, itching, and chest pain.
Amphetamines have been sold as medicines and supplements for many years, coming into prominence in recent years as a way to help manage attention deficit disorders.
There are issues with determining accurate death statistics for amphetamines, as the stats often get lumped together with those associated with more specific amphetamines, like MDMA. A Guardian article on Professor David Nutt’s dangerous drug list lists 99 deaths as being related to amphetamine use.
It’s a curious thing that tobacco is listed as one of the less dangerous on Nutt’s list, given that it causes a huge number of deaths each year. What sets tobacco apart from alcohol is that alcohol is, obviously, much easier to overdose with. It’s virtually impossible to die of nicotine poisoning by smoking actual cigarettes, though liquid nicotine is much more potent. The increasing popularity of that form of the drug, brought on by the increase in popularity of e-cigarettes, is making that a new possible threat in some people’s eyes.
Among other things, effects of consuming tobacco include increased alertness, relaxation, pleasurable feelings, headaches, dizziness, and nausea.
It’s no surprise to the 420 crowd that cannabis is not as dangerous to consumers as alcohol is. It’s functionally impossible to overdose from regular cannabis consumption, meaning a person would need to go out of their way to inject a lethal dose of pure THC – the active ingredient in cannabis – to die from an overdose.
That said, there are still risks associated with the drug. For starters, smoking cannabis does lead the person to inhale carcinogens into their lungs. It is also not a good idea to drive after having consumed cannabis, as, while the driver might be more likely to drive cautiously, they will still be operating the vehicle with an impaired reaction time. About 19 deaths are somehow associated with cannabis.
Effects include increased appetite, dizziness, altered perception, dizziness, nausea, and long-term, frequent use may have a detrimental effect on liver function.
The Guardian lists 19 deaths as being related to cannabis consumption, in comparison to 88,000 yearly deaths from alcohol poisoning in the U.S.
Solvents - which include glue, gas, fuels, and nitrites - are a drug that is inhaled by the user to induce sensations of heightened excitement and relaxation, with possible negative side effects of drowsiness, nosebleeds, and tremors.
Solvents have a slightly higher risk of overdose than some of the other drugs listed here, with figures from the UK noting nearly 50 deaths from the drugs in 2009. The risks increase depending on the kind of solvent used to get high. Breathing fumes out of a bag can lead to suffocation if the effects hit too hard while the user’s head is still inside.
Solvents are typically found in regular household products, with aerosol from deodorants, air fresheners, and foodstuffs a popular choice among users.
It gets a bad rap on account of the publicity of its “bad trips” and “flashbacks”, but LSD is surprisingly safe when consumed responsibly. Like some of the other drugs on this list, it takes a lot of LSD for a person to overdose – far more than typical recreational usage. Most deaths on the drug come from suicide or dangerous activities undertaken by the person dropping acid, though Erowid, a site detailing information for those curious about drugs, estimates risk of death is fewer than one per million usage sessions.
LSD alters the user’s perception, skewing things like time, distance, and even the senses themselves. Research has suggested Along with psilocybin mushrooms, LSD has also been found to be useful as a treatment for addiction to other drugs, particularly alcohol and nicotine.
Also known as Ritalin, this has become a popular drug in recent years not just for recreational purposes, but for that extra focus it can grant those looking to maximize their productivity.
Beyond the extra focus it can grant, effects like increased heart rate, chest pain, cramps, and confusion have been reported.
There has been some debate around the use of this drug by those who aren't coping with an attention deficit disorder. Some have argued that it is a relatively harmless drug that can increase the potential of those who use it, while others point to the potential downsides as proof that it is too risky to use. That said, MacLean’s Magazine reports a poll by Nature found that 1 in 5 of respondents had used Ritalin at some point in their life – far higher than the number of prescriptions out there.
3 Anabolic Steroids
Essentially synthetic testosterone, anabolic steroids are used by athletes to help increase performance and muscle mass. They are also sometimes prescribed as treatment for low hormone levels or some diseases.
It will be no surprise to most that “roid rage” is a real thing. Anabolic steroids can, over time, increase aggression and can lead to manic behaviour and mood swings. For men, they can also lead to a decrease in the size of testes, as well as a lower sperm count, and can cause facial hair growth and menstrual cycle changes in women. Overdose on anabolic steroids is very unlikely.
All the rage as a party drug, Ecstasy/MDMA gets a bad rap when, really, it’s one of the safer drugs around. Effects of the drug include euphoria, lowered inhibitions, increased empathy, and a sense of calmness. Negative effects can include dehydration, teeth grinding, depression, and anxiety.
Dr. Nutt, the man who compiled the list that serves as the basis for this article, famously noted that horseback riding is in the same range of risk as MDMA: With one in 350 “exposures” to horseback riding leading to “acute harms,” the odds of similar risk with MDMA are thought to be significantly lower, though the drug currently leads to approximately 30 deaths per year versus 10 for horseback riding.
Ecstasy is often cut with other drugs, which might increase the risk associated with doing the drug and not testing it for purity.
1 Alkyl Nitrites
Also known as “poppers,” Alkyl Nitrites are fast-acting drugs that expand the body’s blood vessels, leading to effects that can include a head rush, dizziness, euphoria, and feelings of warmth. A high will typically only last up to five minutes long.
The risks associated with Poppers are quite a bit lower than those of other solvents, though consuming a large amount of the drug can lead to your body being starved of oxygen, causing death or serious injury. Meant to be inhaled, poppers are poisonous when ingested, making it crucial that any who accidentally swallow the drug seek medical attention. Typical recreational use is unlikely to result in an overdose.