When we think of “drugs,” we often think of illegal, illicit activities like heroin and cocaine consumed in secret. These drugs may be addictive and dangerous, but the same applies to legal substances. This is why you shouldn’t use legal drugs in recovery.
It may be difficult to wrap our heads around, but legal drugs are still drugs. In fact, the three deadliest drugs in the US are legal, even if they’re used illegally. This alters how we view substance abuse and affects people in recovery looking to create safer and healthier habits.
The State of Drug Legalization
The US is in the middle of a transformation regarding the views of legal recreational drugs, otherwise known as “soft drugs.” As a country, we’re moving toward the mindset of other Western countries with more liberal drug laws, such as Portugal. This contrasts the ongoing War on Drugs that was launched decades ago – which wasn’t successful.
More and more US states are moving toward legalizing marijuana, but it’s still illegal at the federal level. Decriminalizing the use and possession of these drugs is also part of the legalization effort.
In the European Union, many countries made drugs legal. People won’t go to jail for possessing them, but these countries also invest in harm reduction programs. The US is moving in that direction, but it’s not there yet.
The three deadliest drugs in the US are legal: tobacco, alcohol, and opioids. Heroin and cocaine, two illegal drugs, are the third and fourth deadliest drugs, respectively.
Legal Drugs Come with Risks
Legal drugs may not come with a risk of criminal penalties and legal trouble, but they have the same potential for addiction, accidental death, and long-term health problems.
One of the most widely used legal drugs, alcohol is considered socially acceptable in many instances. Though some people drink alcohol for years before they see adverse effects, sometimes those effects are nearly immediate.
Alcohol is associated with many deaths, including deaths from driving under the influence and homicides. Overall, alcohol is responsible for around 90,000 deaths each year. This has been increasing recently as well.
According to experts, the damage from alcohol to the individual, the socioeconomic effects, and the criminal aspects make it the most dangerous drug of all. For the individual using alcohol, the risks include cancers like esophageal cancer, liver cancer, and cancer of the head and neck. Excessive alcohol use also increases breast cancer and colorectal cancer risks.
Alcohol is highly addictive and causes psychological and physical dependence. Withdrawal from alcohol is among the most dangerous of all substances.
The myth of prescription drugs being safe was shattered during the rise of the opioid epidemic. It wasn’t heroin that started the trend, but prescription pain medications.
In the 1990s, Purdue Pharma company pushed prescription pain medications using aggressive marketing tactics. Doctors were encouraged to prescribe prescription opioids in exorbitant amounts, and over the years, these drugs fueled addiction and overdoses.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 932,000 people have died from a drug overdose since 1999, many of which involved an opioid. Unfortunately, many people were prescribed opioids legitimately and legally for pain, then became addicted. Once that cycle began, they sought other illegal drugs like heroin.
Oxycodone and hydrocodone are the most discussed addictive and dangerous prescription drugs, but others are a concern.
Benzodiazepines have a high potential for addiction. Prescribed for sleep and panic disorders, benzodiazepines depress the central nervous system and can lead to impaired memory and confusion. When combined with other drugs, there’s a high risk of overdose.
Amphetamines are another concerning prescription drug category with a high rate of misuse and addiction. These are stimulants found in drugs like Adderall, which make users feel energized and focused. Unfortunately, they’re highly addictive and can lead to heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, or seizures.
Drug legalization is almost solely focused on marijuana on the national level, based on the fact that it’s “natural” and “safer” than drugs like heroin, cocaine, or alcohol.
But marijuana is not without risks. Short-term effects can include impaired memory, hallucinations, delusions, and psychosis. When used in the long term, it can affect cognitive development. When young people use marijuana, they can experience dramatic changes in how brain connections are formed, which researchers believe to be permanent.
Marijuana can have a negative impact on quality of life as well. According to studies, people who are considered frequent marijuana users report poor physical and mental health, relationship issues, and low satisfaction with life.
Tobacco is a legal drug with incredible risks. It’s also the deadliest drug in the US and the top preventable cause of death. On average, smokers die ten years earlier than people who have never smoked. Tobacco also accounts for roughly one in five deaths annually.
Smoking tobacco also has strong connections to cancers. It’s linked to around 20% of cancers in the US and 30% of cancer deaths. Tobacco damages the lungs and increases the risk of developing conditions like pneumonia, tuberculosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Nicotine is the primary addictive chemical in tobacco. Once users are exposed, it causes an adrenaline rush and an increase in dopamine that leads to addiction.
Other Addictive Substances
Aside from legal drugs, other addictive substances aren’t entirely harmless and may adversely affect someone in recovery. These include sugar addiction, which acts on the brain’s reward centers similar to drugs, and caffeine, which can become dangerous to your health with overuse.
Don’t Take a Risk with Legal Drugs in Recovery
Though it may be easy to write off the occasional cigarette or cocktail as a legal, safe, and healthy option during recovery, that’s not the case. Legal doesn’t mean safe, and consuming addictive substances – legal or otherwise – can be a setback in forming healthy, long-term habits.
If you’re struggling with substance abuse, Clear Life Recovery can help. Our full-service addiction rehabilitation center offers care, including detox, residential, PHP, IOP, and sober living aftercare to meet you where you are and help you build skills for lifelong recovery. Contact us today to get started!