Are Illegal Drugs Safer than Legal Drugs?

Are Illegal Drugs Safer than Legal Drugs

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)1 notes that poisoning is the leading cause of injury death in the United States – legal and illegal drugs account for 90 percent of all poisonings.If you are like most people, you might think the illegal drugs are causing all the problems and that legal drugs are perfectly harmless. After all, why would the government allow you to take a drug if it was not safe?

You might be surprised to learn that many legal drugs may be more dangerous than some illegal substances. This means many prescription and non-prescription drugs may actually have a higher risk for serious side effects, including overdose and death. Many legal drugs may also present a higher potential for addiction and physical dependence than some illegal drugs.

The Most Deadly Drugs

the most deadly drugs are tobacco, alcohol and prescription opioid painkillersAccording to 2011 statistics presented by the CDC, tobacco, alcohol and prescription opioid painkillers were responsible for more deaths than any other drug. Nobody has ever died from an overdose of marijuana, for example, but 14,800 people died from prescription drug overdoses in 2008 – more than cocaine and heroin deaths combined4.

Drug overdoses have more than tripled since 1990, and that most of these overdose deaths were the result of prescription drugs. This unprecedented rise parallels the 300 percent increase in the legal sales of prescription drugs during those same years.Aside from death, prescription drugs also cause serious health consequences. In 2009, prescription painkillers sent 475,000 people to the emergency department. Many of these patients had used prescription drugs improperly, usually for non-medical and recreational purposes. People are also showing up to hospitals in need of emergency care for misuse of prescription antidepressants, sedatives, and tranquilizers.

Fake Pot versus Weed

Marijuana is perhaps the most notable example of an illegal substance with a low risk for life-threatening side effect. In fact, there have been no verified deaths associated with marijuana overdose.

Synthetic cannabinoid products, legal in the United States, are dangerous by comparison. Fake pot products appeared in 2008 as legal alternatives to marijuana. Synthetic weed, which goes by the names of K2, spice, herbal incense, create an effect similar to marijuana.

Consumers can experience:
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Lowered blood supply to the heart
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion or agitation
  • Hallucinations
  • Heart attacks
The chemicals in synthetic marijuana provide no health benefit and present a great risk for addiction.

Synthetic Cannabis Is on the Rise

Authors of the 2014 Global Drug Survey5, the largest survey of current drug use ever conducted, said that synthetic cannabis products were the most commonly used novel psychoactive drug across their sample of participants.

The researchers also said that synthetic cannabis users were more 30 times likely to need emergency medical treatment than people who smoked real pot. According to U.S. DEA(6) statistics, poison control centers received about 5,200 calls regarding exposures to synthetic cannabinoids in 2012.When trying to assess the relative safety of a drug, try to avoid assuming that a drug is safe just because it is legal.

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drug-poisoning Deaths Involving Opioid Analgesics: United States, 1999–2011. September 2014. Retrieved from
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tobacco-Related Mortality. February 6, 2014. Retrieved from
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol Use. February 6, 2014. Retrieved from
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Policy Impact: Prescription Painkiller Overdoses. November 2011. Retrieved from
  5. Global Drug Survey. Last 12 Month Prevalence of Top 20 Drugs. April 2014. Retrieved from
  6. U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. National Drug Threat Assessment Summary 2013. November 2013. Retrieved from

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