Legal Drugs are Still Drugs – A Hard Pill to Swallow

legal drugs

legal drugs


The term “drug” creates imagery in our heads of illegal, illicit activities. For example, when we think about drugs, the first things that might come to mind are illicit substances like heroin and cocaine. While illicit drugs are addictive, dangerous, and often deadly, they aren’t alone in that. The three deadliest drugs in the U.S. are considered legal drugs. This brings about a lot of questions as far as drug legalization and how we look at addiction. It’s important to understand that just because something is legal doesn’t make it safe or healthy.


Drug Legalization

The United States right now is in the midst of a transformation regarding how it views legal recreational drugs or “soft drugs.” We are quickly joining countries with more relaxed drug law views, like Portugal. This is in sharp contrast to the ongoing war on drugs waged somewhat unsuccessfully in the U.S. decades ago.

Many states in the U.S. have moved toward the drug legalization of marijuana, although it remains illegal federally. Along with legalizing certain drugs, there are also moves to decriminalize their use and possession.

Glass of alcohol, girl making cross with fingers in front of it

This is similar to what’s happened in many European Union countries where drugs are legal, technically legal recreational drugs that law enforcement won’t throw you in jail for possessing, but still make significant investments made in harm reduction programs.

While there are countries like Switzerland that are managing legal recreational drugs reasonably well, the U.S. isn’t there yet.

In the United States, as was mentioned, the three deadliest drugs are all legal. These are tobacco, alcohol, and opioids. Heroin and cocaine, two illegal drugs, come in third and fourth respectively when it comes to the deaths attributed to their use.


The Risks of Legal Drugs

While the fear of criminal penalties is not present, the potential for addiction, accidental death, and long-term health problems are all risks of legal drugs. These risks are highlighted more below.


Tobacco Use

Tobacco is a legal drug if you’re 18 and older. It’s also the deadliest in America.

  • On average, smokers die ten years earlier than people who’ve never smoked.
  • The use of tobacco is the top preventable cause of death in this country.
  • Tobacco use accounts for around 1 in 5 deaths annually.

tobacco leaves

  • Smoking is linked to around 20% of all cancers in the U.S. and 30% of cancer deaths.
  • Along with cancer, tobacco damages your lungs and increases the chances of developing long-term lung diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pneumonia, and tuberculosis.
  • Tobacco products can also affect your heart and blood vessels, reproductive system, and immune system.
  • Nicotine is the primary addictive chemical found in tobacco. As is the case with illegal drugs, when you’re exposed to that nicotine, it creates an adrenaline rush and an increase in dopamine. Dopamine activates your brain’s reward and pleasure centers, leading to addiction.  


Alcohol’s Dangers

Among legal drugs, the effects of alcohol can be the scariest in many ways. When you drink alcohol, it doesn’t take years for adverse side effects to occur. They can become almost immediately apparent.

  • When you include all causes of death associated with alcohol, such as homicides and drunk driving, this legal drug is responsible for nearly 90,000 deaths a year.
  • The number of alcohol-related deaths has also been increasing in recent years.
  • According to drug experts, when looking at damage to the person using the substance, socioeconomic effects, and the impact on crime, alcohol is the single most dangerous drug.
  • Over the long term, alcohol increases your risk of developing most types of cancer including head and neck cancers, esophageal cancer, and liver cancer. Breast cancer and colorectal cancer risks are also increased with excessive alcohol use.
  • Alcohol is highly addictive, and you can develop a physical dependence on it as well. Withdrawal, when you’re dependent on alcohol, is among the most dangerous you can go through, compared to all other substances.


Prescription Drugs

The opioid epidemic was fueled initially not by heroin but prescription pain medicines. The Purdue Pharma company was one of the drug manufacturers in the 1990s that pushed their products through aggressive marketing.

  • Doctors were encouraged to prescribe huge amounts of prescription opioids. Over the years, it became apparent that these prescription drugs were fueling addictions and overdose deaths.
  • According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Since 1990, more than 840,000 people have died from a drug overdose, and the vast majority of those involve an opioid.
  • Many people who have been prescribed opioids legitimately for pain issues become addicted and then move on to other types of illegal opioids like heroin, which can be cheaper and easier to get.

While opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone are among the most talked-about addictive and dangerous prescription medicines, they aren’t the only ones.

  • Benzodiazepines have a high potential for abuse and addiction also. Benzodiazepines are prescribed to help with sleep and panic disorders and include drugs like Xanax.
  • Benzodiazepines slow down the central nervous system and can lead to impaired memory and confusion.
  • When combined with alcohol or other depressants like opioids, there is a risk of overdosing.

Another category of legal drugs that are addictive and have a high rate of misuse are stimulants.

  • Amphetamine is one such stimulant. Amphetamine is the ingredient in prescription medicines like Adderall.
  • These cause drug users to feel focused, energized, and have a sense of well-being.
  • These are also addictive and can cause health problems such as high blood pressure, increased heart rate, heart attack, seizures, or stroke.



While drug legalization proponents are pushing for marijuana to be legalized on a national level, that doesn’t mean that it’s not without its risks. In 2018, nearly 12 million young people said they’d used marijuana in the past year.

  • In the short term, the effects of marijuana can include impaired memory and thinking, hallucinations, and delusions. Psychosis is also possible.
  • Over the long term, marijuana use affects the development of the brain.

hands cutting a cigarette with scissors

  • When someone uses marijuana from a young age, it can impact how their brain connections are formed. Some researchers believe these changes could be permanent. For example, a study found that teen marijuana users, aged 12 to 38, lost an average of 8 IQ points per year; even after quitting, their mental abilities didn’t fully return.
  • Marijuana can affect the quality of life too. For example, a number of people who are considered frequent marijuana users often report poorer physical and mental health, more relationship problems, and a lower level of satisfaction with their lives.


Other Addictive Substances

Beyond alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs, and marijuana, things we might use daily aren’t always harmless. For example, we are learning more about the potential for sugar addiction to develop. Sugar affects your brain and your reward centers in the same way as alcohol and drugs. Like alcohol and other substances, sugar also has serious adverse effects on your health.

Another addictive substance is caffeine, the commonly used drug throughout the world. While it’s relatively rare, caffeine overuse can affect your life negatively and can be dangerous to your health.


Just Because It’s Legal Doesn’t Mean It’s Safe.

There are a few key takeaways. First, legal drugs are not necessarily safe drugs. This is something that, as a society and as individuals, we have to realize. Just because something is legal doesn’t mean that it couldn’t cause harm. We tend to look at things that society views Supposevorably as not being as bad as something illegal, but that’s just not the case.

Suppose you are struggling with any substance, including legal drugs. In that case, it’s important to realize that this can still be an addiction, and you may benefit from participation in a treatment program.