Increasing medical technology has brought relief to millions suffering from various diseases and disorders, but it has also worsened the persistent problem of recreational drug use. Thrill-seekers are now faced with hundreds of natural and synthetic drugs, each just a little different but all with their own characteristics and consequences. Some slow down the brain, others amp it up and nearly all of them are either physically or psychologically addictive. When a user gets too far into the drug, the results are devastating. Addicts can lose their jobs, homes, families and even lives. These are the five most harmful recreational drugs in the world today, based on both their physical and societal damages.
Tobacco was one of the first cash crops grown in North America, quickly spreading across the globe and becoming the drug of choice for smokers already familiar with marijuana and opium. Even after the medical experts of the 20th century linked cigarettes to smoking, tobacco remained plentiful and legal. A vigorous anti-smoking campaign has lessened its impact in the United States, but increasing affluence in nations such as China continues to fuel demand for the drug, which is growing within the global population by about 3 percent per year.
Tobacco relaxes the user when smoked or chewed and is commonly said to “take the edge off” of anxiety and stress. It is a known carcinogen that affects the mouth, lungs and heart. Tobacco also raises the risk for heart disease, emphysema and strokes. It is responsible for millions of deaths every year.
The other legal drug on this list has been a favorite of mankind since prehistory. Alcohol is naturally produced by rotting, fermenting fruits and gives its drinker a sense of powerful happiness, disorientation, melancholy and even rage, depending on the individual. It was once safer to drink than water and beer has been imbibed in great quantities since the days of Ancient Mesopotamia. The trend continues today, and alcohol is still a major part of human social behavior.
On the other hand, it is also addictive and unhealthy when abused. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 140 million people worldwide are currently alcoholics. Alcohol causes liver and heart disease, as well as generally lowering an addict’s standard of living and impeding social function. It kills nearly 100,000 people in the United States alone every year.
Crack cocaine became popular among the urban poor as a cheap substitute to cocaine. It causes a powerful high when smoked, making the user feel intense euphoria, but the effects are not long-lasting. Crack is not only dangerous as an addictive drug but also because it is often mixed with toxic substances. Any white, powdery material can be mixed in to dilute the crack, including veterinary dewormers and candle wax.
Users become paranoid and may scratch their own skin bloody. In an overdose, the individual typically goes into cardiac arrest, followed by the shutdown of major organs and death. Crack is more concentrated than regular cocaine and also more addictive. An estimated one million Americans use it every year.
Crystal meth first saw widespread use during WWII, when it was given to both Axis and Allied soldiers as a stimulant. Pilots took methamphetamine tablets to stay awake while flying over the Pacific, and Hitler himself was rumored to be an addict. It was then sold as a medicinal drug until 1970, when its addictive qualities were finally recognized. Production then moved to motorcycle gangs and eventually criminal drug operations.
If crack cocaine found a market in the inner city, meth has flourished in rural areas, particularly the Western United States. Approximately 1.2 million Americans used meth in 2009. Prolonged addiction leads to weight loss, oral decay, heart attacks, seizures and paranoia. It is one of the most difficult addictions to overcome, with withdrawal symptoms that last a year or longer.
Heroin remains one of, if not the, most harmful drugs in the world. It was used for decades as a morphine substitute, touted as being faster acting and having fewer side-effects than its fellow opioid. It is described as giving its users an airy euphoria and transcendental bliss, brought on almost immediately after injection. Administration by needle is most common, but heroin can also be smoked, snorted and inserted as a suppository.
An estimated 20 million people worldwide use heroin regularly. The brains develops a tolerance to the drug quickly, leaving its users consuming ever greater amounts to reach the same highs. Heroin, when used safely, is actually not particularly dangerous. Dirty needles, however, cause infection and spread diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. Overdoses are also common, and the drug has virulent withdrawal symptoms that make it almost impossible for addicts to quit without outside help.
It’s unlikely that recreational drug abuse around the world will ever be eliminated, especially when two of the worst offenders are legal in most countries, but increasing awareness has led to improved recognition and treatment options for addicts. The question facing governments now is whether to clamp down further on illegal drug operations or seize control and regulate the industry for the safety of their citizens.