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If a Drug Is Legal, Is it Safe?

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There is a common misconception, especially amongst young people, that if a drug is legal then it is safe. This is certainly not the case. In fact, many of the most dangerous drugs are legal with a valid prescription. Safe, short-term use of opioid painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone can occur when the treated individual closely follows the dosing and schedule outlined by their prescribing health-care professional. However, the same drugs – when abused – can have many detrimental physical and psychological effects. Similarly, benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium are prescription sedatives that may not cause problems when taken as directed but can be dangerous, if not fatal, when misused or combined with other substances, such as alcohol.

In addition to prescription drugs, there are endless amounts of synthetic, legal highs sold over the Internet and in head shops that mimic the effects of illegal drugs. These drugs are sometimes referred to as “research chemicals” or designer drugs. Spice and K2 – popular marijuana alternatives – typically have labels that read “not safe for human consumption” as part of the manufacturer’s strategy to sidestep drug laws.

The legality of a substance has little bearing on its safety—abuse of any drug is often closely tied to health risks (physical and mental) and negative lifestyle changes.

Popular Legal Drugs

  • Alcohol: Although many people may not consider alcohol to be a drug, it has deep-reaching and devastating health effects in both short- and long-term drinkers. It should be responsibly consumed in moderation (1 drink per day for women, 2 per day for men), if at all.
  • Spice/K2: Spice and K2 are synthetic cannabinoids that are chemically similar to marijuana. On average, they are more potent stimulators of the body’s cannabinoid receptors and could possibly be more dangerous. Laws have been created to ban synthetic cannabinoids; however, manufacturers can often get around the ban by changing the ingredients on a regular basis.
  • Prescription Opioids: Opioid painkillers – such as OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet – are commonly prescribed as part of a pain management regimen. They can be safe and beneficial when taken exactly as directed, but become dangerous when people misuse or abuse them (taking more than prescribed, crushing the pill for snorting or injecting, etc.).
  • Benzodiazepines: Benzodiazepines – such as Xanax and Ativan – are prescription anxiolytics (or, anti-anxiety medications). Long-term, regular use and abuse can lead to addiction and a number of adverse health effects.
  • Prescription stimulants: Stimulants are usually prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, but are often abused for their euphoric potential or to increase energy and attention when studying. When taken in excess, dangerous neurologic and cardiovascular events may arise that are on par with those seen in the deleterious effects seen in cocaine abusers.
  • “Research chemicals:” These synthetic chemicals – also known as designer drugs – are created to mimic the effects of popular illegal drugs. They are often sold over the Internet, as new formulations are constantly being developed to skirt laws attempting to regulate these drugs. Little research has been conducted on many of the chemicals being used. This, in combination with the lack of regulation, makes taking these drugs a very risky health proposition.
Think you know what’s in those legal synthetic drugs? Think again.

Why Are Legal Drugs Dangerous?

Legal drugs are dangerous for two major reasons:

  • The common misconception that they’re safe even when misused. It’s common for many people, especially young users, to feel that the availability of a drug is representative of its safety. For example, some think that if drugs come from a doctor, they can’t hurt you—a belief that can prove fatal.
  • The fact that they’re easily accessible. Even without a prescription, opioids and stimulants are frequently obtained from family or friends with prescriptions or illicitly purchased from street dealers. Further, many of the so-called recreational chemicals can be bought in gas stations, head shops, or through various Internet outlets. For this reason, many people, particularly teenagers, may turn to designer drugs thinking that they’re less dangerous than illegal alternatives. In reality, legal drugs can be even more dangerous than illegal ones, due to their unpredictable nature.

This fallacy of safety surrounding legal drug culture can hasten the development of long-term complications, addiction, and place individuals at risk of overdose.

Dangers of Alcohol

Alcohol is widely used and abused. Those who consume it in excess may quickly develop tolerance, physiologic dependency, and, in some cases, experience a dangerous withdrawal syndrome mere hours after the last drink. The health impacts can manifest across a number of organ systems—from cardiovascular to central nervous system, and beyond. Some of the potential short-term effects include:

  • Unsteady gait.
  • Coordination problems.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Stupor.
  • Aggression.
  • Mood swings.
  • Impaired judgment.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Memory loss.
  • Slowed breathing.
  • Slowed pulse.
  • Coma.

Oftentimes, people will not act like their “normal” selves while under the influence of alcohol. Their judgment is impaired which can lead them to make decisions they wouldn’t make while sober, such as engaging in unsafe sexual practices, violence, or illicit drug use. There is also an increased risk of suicide while someone is under the influence, per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). In addition to the adverse effects caused by acute intoxication, there are countless long-term effects from reckless alcohol use that include:

Doctor checking patients blood pressure
  • Dysfunction of the cerebellum.
  • Shrinking of brain volume.
  • Weakening of heart muscle.
  • Irregular heart beat.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Weakened immune system.
  • Cancer (breast, throat/mouth, liver)
  • Cirrhosis of the liver.
  • Alcoholic hepatitis.
  • Pancreatitis.
  • Stroke.

Harmful Effects of Spice/K2

Over time, Spice and K2 can lead to cannabinoid dependence when used frequently. These drugs bind to the same cannabinoid receptors as marijuana, and research has shown that this bond is stronger than that of marijuana. Synthetic cannabinoids produce a similar high to that produced by marijuana—causing relaxation, altered perception, and euphoria.

Due to the ever-changing compositions of these drugs and the difficulty in regulating them, the effects are unpredictable. These may include:

  • Excessive sweating.
  • Vomiting.
  • Muscle twitches.
  • Seizures.
  • Kidney damage.
  • Cognitive impairment.
  • Anxiety.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Psychosis.
  • Suicidal ideation.
  • Violent behaviors.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate.
  • Chest pain.
  • Heart attack.

Find out how to help someone who is abusing Spice.

Opioid Abuse Complications

Opioid painkillers can have fatal effects when misused or abused. Continued use can quickly lead to tolerance, which causes the need to take increasing amounts to get the desired results. This can be a dangerous practice, as opioids can profoundly depress breathing—potentially leading to coma and death when used in excess.

Similarities to Heroin

These drugs are commonly prescribed, but they have proven themselves no safer than their illicit opiates counterparts when abused.

Opioid painkillers are chemically very similar to heroin and produce nearly identical effects; for this reason, in some cases, those who abuse them go on to abuse heroin in order to get the same feelings at a lower cost.

It’s important to get help for prescription painkiller addiction, as the consequences can be deadly.

Some harmful and possibly surprising effects of opioids include:

  • Severe skin itchiness.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Vision problems.
  • Chronic constipation – which can lead to bowel obstruction, and other GI emergencies.
  • Anxiety.
  • Respiratory depression, which can lead to anoxic organ injury, coma and death.
  • Decreased appetite and resultant malnutrition.
  • Slowed heart rate.
  • Dizziness.
  • Muscle twitching or jerking.
  • Hormonal dysfunction.


Negative Consequences of Abusing Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines like Ativan are extremely habit-forming, and may carry a number of risks when abused. Even those who take them as directed over a certain period of time may eventually experience tolerance and develop a physical dependence to the sedative

As with opioids, there is a risk of experiencing life-threatening respiratory depression if taken in high doses, which may become increasingly more likely as people begin to take large doses to counter the phenomenon of tolerance. There are numerous detrimental effects associated with benzodiazepine abuse, such as:

  • Drowsiness.
  • Dizziness.
  • Headache.
  • Irritability.
  • Concentration problems, memory impairment, and confusion.
  • Changes in sex drive.
  • Nausea.
  • Weight changes.
  • Joint pain.
  • Skin rash.
  • Difficulty urinating.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Seizures.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Mood swings.
  • Depression.
  • Suicidal ideation.

Although legally prescribed benzodiazepines can be quite beneficial pharmaceuticals for managing acute panic attacks, they are not safe to use recreationally. They are sometimes abused in party settings in which alcohol is present and the combined effects of these central nervous system depressants can lead to coma and death.

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Harmful Effects of Prescription Stimulants

Prescription stimulants – such as Adderall, Ritalin, and Concerta –  have gained popularity as a study aids or as party drugs due to their energizing effects. Oftentimes, people will abuse these drugs by taking more than directed, or crushing and snorting the pills. This misuse can accelerate the development of substance dependency. Effects of abuse include:

  • Nervousness.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Mood swings.
  • Dizziness.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Headache.
  • Hostility.
  • Paranoia.
  • Psychosis.
  • Increased body temperature.
  • Increased heart rate.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Irregular heart beat.
  • Heart failure.
  • Cerebrovascular accidents (e.g., strokes).
  • Seizures.

What many students may think is just a helpful way to increase attention and energy while studying is actually a dangerous and potentially life-threatening practice. If you’re abusing drugs like Ritalin or Adderall, you don’t have to suffer any longer. You can find help at .  

Dangers of Research Chemicals

“Research chemicals” encompass a variety of designer drugs, mostly sold on the Internet. They can come in powders, crystals, or herbal forms and are created to mimic the desirable effects of known illegal drugs without containing banned substances.

Like Spice and K2, the effects of designer drugs are unpredictable, as the chemical components are always being altered in order to sidestep law enforcement. These drugs haven’t been tested on animals or humans so users are taking a huge risk when purchasing these highs.

Designer drugs can be hundreds of times stronger than the illegal drugs that they mimic, which can have grave results. There are hundreds of different research chemicals on the market at any given time, increasing one’s risk for a wide range of physical and mental health issues, including:

  • Blurred vision.
  • Paralysis.
  • Uncontrollable tremors.
  • Impaired speech
  • Hallucinations.
  • Paranoia.
  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.

It’s important to note that research chemicals are not legal because they’re safe, but rather because it isn’t realistic for the FDA to be able to keep up with every new designer drug or “research chemical” that’s released. Each time a new one is banned, a chemical company tweaks the recipe and releases a new form of the same drug. There’s no regulation as to what substances you are putting in your body when you buy and use these drugs. The effects can be volatile and potentially fatal, sending thousands of people to emergency rooms across the country for preventable injuries and illnesses.

Additional Resources on Health Insurance Providers and Coverage Levels

Visit the links below to find out more about your health insurance coverage levels, how to get your insurance company to pay for drug and alcohol rehab and also how to pay if you don’t have insurance.

Additional Resources on Drug and Alcohol Rehab

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Lauren Brande, MA, has dedicated her life to psychological research. She started off her career with a scholarship from the Western Psychological Association for her undergraduate work in perceptual processing. In 2014, she achieved her master of arts in psychology from Boston University, harnessing a particular interest in the effects that drugs and trauma have on the functioning brain.

She believes that all research should be accessible and digestible, and her passion fuels her desire to share important scientific findings to improve rehabilitation.

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