There have been any number of studies on what might be the world’s most dangerous drugs over the years. A problem many of these have is they focus on only one aspect of what makes any particular drug harmful. For example, how much damage to society does it cause, is it dangerous in the long term / short term, or how addictive is it. To really get to grips with this question all these factors need to be taken into account; but also we need to look at the actual statistics – how many people are actually seriously harmed by these drugs.
The first thing to do is forget any government classification of narcotics. These are partly driven by vested interest, partly by politics and often out of date with the reality on the street. It was the chief British drugs advisor, Prof. David Nutt, who pointed out that horse riding was statistically far more dangerous than taking ecstasy. However, one is a highly illegal drug whereas the other is considered a wholesome pursuit. So, this would lead me to think that it isn’t our governments concern for our safety that drives their drug policies.
Perhaps the most glaring inconsistency in almost any government’s ability to rank the danger of drugs is the fact that the only two that kill in their millions are perfectly legal whilst some schedule 1 / class A drugs are not toxic or addictive.
Ketamine is perhaps best known as a horse tranquiliser although it was developed for human use. It was intended to replace PCP (Angel dust) as a shorter lasting anaesthetic and it is still used in certain situations. However, there are several side effects that come in to play as the drugs effects wear off, most notably hallucinations. These usually last less than 2 hours along with feelings of detachment, which can be fairly extreme.
Ketamine overdoses are potentially fatal and there is no effective antidote. A patient may need to be put on life support to maintain respiratory function until they can breath on their own. Possibly the greatest risk to users of ketamine though is the direct psychological effects or the “K-hole”. The user may become so detached from reality that they endanger themselves. For example two eminent ketamine experimenters wound up dead, one from hypothermia and the other drowning.
There is plenty of evidence of ketamine being addictive and once this happens tolerance soon builds up. Along with this go several side-effects such as bladder problems, memory loss and various other psychological impairments. Withdrawal may result in minor, but permanent nerve damage.
It may seem strange but one of the few legitimate medical uses of the stimulant amphetamine is in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For most people though, the effects of taking amphetamines are feeling energised and confident.
There is a risk of addiction, but the evidence is that this is only particularly likely with heavy use. If someone does become addicted then tolerance grows quickly requiring ever increasing doses. Surprisingly amphetamine overdoses rarely prove fatal and there is little evidence to show that it can result in heart attack, strokes or other cardiovascular events.
What excessive doses can do is effectively change the wiring of the brain making addiction stronger or more likely.
Perhaps the best known and most sinister of amphetamines side effects is “speed psychosis”. One study found that nearly 20% of heavy users had clinical levels of psychosis. Of these up to 15% never fully recover. The symptoms of amphetamine psychosis are very similar to schizophrenia with hallucinations, delusions of persecution and extreme agitation being common.
And this is why amphetamines make it onto this list.
Valium (diazepam) is probably the best known of all prescription sedatives. They were developed partly in an effort to replace barbiturates (see below) as an anti-anxiety/depressant. Whilst they are somewhat less likely to result in fatal overdose they are highly addictive. Benzodiazepines are also widely available, this has made them the most widely abused class of psychoactive drugs in America.
Much of the misuse of benzodiazepines revolve around managing other drug use, e.g. to make heroin or amphetamine come downs more tolerable. Whilst there is evidence of benzodiazepine addiction alone most users seem to have a multi-drug problem.
What is interesting about this class of drug is the problematic behaviours caused are exactly the opposite you would expect from a drug considered a sedative. For example in the 1990s in the UK, at the height of the ecstasy-fuelled rave scene there was more violence surrounding the use and supply of the benzodiazepine tamazepam than all the other party drugs together.
The same appears true for users. In what are termed paradoxical effects people using these drugs may end exhibiting symptoms the very opposite of those the drug is intended to treat. These symptoms often include psychosis and higher levels of psychopathy. Studies have also shown use of benzodiazepines increases risk taking behaviour.
Barbiturates have been around for a long time and were once the drug of choice of the American housewife. They are a class of sedatives which were widely prescribed to treat depression, anxiety and even sleeping problems until the potential dangers were realised in the late 1960s. Since 1970 barbiturates have not been freely available, if they were they would appear higher up this list.
The drugs work by depressing the nervous system which in turns gives the user a feeling of relaxed contentment and even euphoria. They also reduce anxiety and inhibition, somewhat similar to the effects of alcohol. There is no lack of evidence to show the addictive powers of barbiturates and this is both physical and psychological. In fact barbiturate withdrawal is one of the most severe and can be fatal.
The true danger of barbiturates though lies in the ease in which users can overdose. There is a much finer line between a normal and a deadly dose than with most other narcotics. Over the years countless deaths have been attributed to accidental barbiturate overdoses including celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Jimi Hendrix. However, even in “safe” doses barbiturates can eventually kill you with a range of physical and mental side effects.
If anything else killed up to 20% of the population prematurely then you might expect the government to frown on it. But here we have a highly addictive drug that causes the slow painful death of millions worldwide every year and it is perfectly legal. It does make you wonder about the authorities motivations for controlling other drugs though.
But everybody knows smoking kills you so we’ll move on.
The fact alcohol is legal in most countries is the main reason it is not higher up the list. There is little doubt that alcohol addiction will mess you up but the fact it is legal means many can just about hold things together and put on a veneer of normality.
3. Crystal Meth
Methamphetamine, or crystal meth, has actually been around since the 1890s. Its first recorded use was by the Nazis in World War II, when it was used as a stimulant by fighter pilots and tank commanders. The drug then reappeared in 1950s America as an anti-obesity product. Remember those diet pills you heard about people getting addicted to – crystal meth!
These days methamphetamine has a very different reputation. If you believe the media there is a a veritable epidemic of crystal meth has swept across the U.S. turning users into skeletal zombies within a matter of weeks. Although this is certainly not what happens to everyone who tries methamphetamine it is one of an elite class of drugs where there is virtually no bottom to how bad it can get.
Whilst in some ways similar to other amphetamines crystal meth is both more addictive and much worse for your body. The effects of crystal meth are likened to crack cocaine, but lasting much, much longer.
However, methamphetamine is a neurotoxin; it works by flooding the brain with high levels of dopamine which creates the feelings of euphoria. Ironically it also damages the dopamine receptors meaning you will need ever increasing doses of meth and leading to long term emotional problems. There is also evidence of that long term meth use destroys the brain’s grey matter.
Methamphetamine is known to be an aphrodisiac and can prolong sexual activities. It is not unheard of for meth-fuelled sex parties to go on for days. On the negative side, a direct correlation between high-risk sexual practices and related infections has been seen with crystal meth abuse.
One of the best known side effects suffered by meth addicts is what the drug does to the skin. The drug itself causes skin conditions such as acne which are compounded by the lifestyle and lack of personal-care. This is further compounded by addicts often compulsively and obsessively picking their skin of their face causing open sores. The other classic result of meth abuse is “meth mouth”. This chronic tooth decay is the combination of a dry mouth and the complete lack of oral hygiene when addicts become totally self-neglecting..
Along with all the meth specific risk are several common to other drugs. There is psychosis, risk of heart attack or stroke and possible death by overdose. This combined with the fact most addicts will need to resort to crime to pay for their habit is why crystal meth features on our list.
It was a difficult choice between heroine and crystal meth but from what I’ve read heroine wins out on the most dangerous drugs stakes. There are three main reasons for this the first of which is heroine is just more dangerous. Whilst taking too much meth might not do you any good it is a lot more difficult to kill yourself with an OD than it is with heroine. In fact it is all to easy to accidentally overdose on heroine. One reason is it doesn’t take that much, but the main reason is that no one has a clue how pure the stuff you get on the street is. Every set of hands it passes through it gets cut with some other dirty white powder. Until that is, one day you get some that is 50 or 60% pure. This might contain three or four times the dose you’ve been taking and that’s enough to kill you.
Then there is the physical withdrawal. Once addicted kicking the habit is going to involve a whole world of pain. Whilst generally no worse than a case of flu this can be more than enough to discourage the addict to try quitting. Of course stopping using is also going to involve dealing with the psychological addiction too. So heroine is probably the hardest of all drugs to give up.
One of heroine’s worst attributes is the drug’s ability to practically take over a user’s soul so that nothing else matters. None of the other drugs at the top of this list will sap the life out of you quite like heroine. It will be the only thing you think about from the moment you wake up and junkies will do anything just to get the next fix.
Cocaine may be regarded as the champagne of drugs by some, and the price tag reflects that. However, I wouldn’t take the price of any of these drugs too seriously. At the end of the day, once you develop a serious addiction to any of the top three, it will cost you all your money, and probably your soul too!
Despite having the status of the celebrity drug of choice, as used by models, rock-stars and Wall Street traders, cocaine is surprisingly commonplace. One study suggested nearly 10% of young adults in the U.S. had used cocaine within the last year. With effects including a sense of euphoria, limitless energy and god-like feelings why wouldn’t it be popular?
But unsurprisingly it is highly addictive. Coke acts on the primal reward areas of the brain which are normally triggered via, for example, sex or eating food we like. This makes the cravings for cocaine powerful.
As well as being bad for your wallet cocaine is particularly bad for you with more emergency room visits in the U.S. being caused by it than any other illegal drug. There are few parts of the body cocaine does not adversely effect but the most significant risks are sudden death from heart attack or stroke.
Whilst the physical effects of withdrawal are relatively minor the psychological addiction can be hard to break with some users even becoming suicidal. Although the process may only last 2 weeks a cocaine addict may experience cravings for the drug years down the line.
Of course the powerful effects of cocaine weren’t quite enough for everyone. Although you can inject coke, it is dangerous and apparently gives a very strong but short-lived rush. This is why crack came about. You can’t effectively smoke coke but this is how you take crack. The result is a more powerful but shorter lived hit, followed by a nasty come down. This makes crack even more addictive than normal cocaine.
Crack has all the same risks as other forms of cocaine plus smoking it is very bad for your lungs. There is also a higher risk of overdosing due to increased cravings.
In conclusion; there are some drugs that people can live with, some for a long time. These may be legal or illegal and how long you live a relatively healthy life on these is somewhat of a lottery. There are however some drugs that even if you have all the money in the world and a guaranteed pure source are still going to mess you up. Take your pick from crack, meths, heroin or alcohol – if you have an addictive personality type then it probably won’t end well.
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