10 of the Most Dangerous Drugs

There have been any number of studies on what might be the world’s most dangerous drugs over the years. A problem many of these have is they focus on only one aspect of what makes any particular drug harmful. For example, how much damage to society does it cause, is it dangerous in the long term / short term, or how addictive is it. To really get to grips with this question all these factors need to be taken into account; but also we need to look at the actual statistics – how many people are actually seriously harmed by these drugs.

The first thing to do is forget any government classification of narcotics. These are partly driven by vested interest, partly by politics and often out of date with the reality on the street. It was the chief British drugs advisor, Prof. David Nutt, who pointed out that horse riding was statistically far more dangerous than taking ecstasy. However, one is a highly illegal drug whereas the other is considered a wholesome pursuit. So, this would lead me to think that it isn’t our governments concern for our safety that drives their drug policies.
Perhaps the most glaring inconsistency in almost any government’s ability to rank the danger of drugs is the fact that the only two that kill in their millions are perfectly legal whilst some schedule 1 / class A drugs are not toxic or addictive.

In this list of the 10 most dangerous illicit drugs I am going to focus on the danger the drug presents to the user. So I’m looking at how toxic the drug is, how addictive it is and how quickly you will cease to be a functioning human being once you start using.

10. Ketamine


Ketamine in powder form

AKA: K, Special K, Vitamin K, K2

Price: $$$

Ketamine is perhaps best known as a horse tranquiliser although it was developed for human use. It was intended to replace PCP (Angel dust) as a shorter lasting anaesthetic and it is still used in certain situations. However, there are several side effects that come in to play as the drugs effects wear off, most notably hallucinations. These usually last less than 2 hours along with feelings of detachment, which can be fairly extreme.

Ketamine overdoses are potentially fatal and there is no effective antidote. A patient may need to be put on life support to maintain respiratory function until they can breath on their own. Possibly the greatest risk to users of ketamine though is the direct psychological effects or the “K-hole”. The user may become so detached from reality that they endanger themselves. For example two eminent ketamine experimentors wound up dead, one from hypothermia and the other drowning.

There is plenty of evidence of ketamine being addictive and once this happens tolerance soon builds up. Along with this go several side-effects such as bladder problems, memory loss and various other psychological impairments. Withdrawal may result in minor, but permanent nerve damage.

9. Amphetamines

Snorting amphetamines

Snorting amphetamines

AKA: Speed

Price: $$

It may seem strange but one of the few legitimate medical uses of the stimulant amphetamine is in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For most people though, the effects of taking amphetamines are feeling energised and confident.

There is a risk of addiction, but the evidence is that this is only particularly likely with heavy use. If someone does become addicted then tolerance grows quickly requiring ever increasing doses. Surprisingly amphetamine overdoses rarely prove fatal and there is little evidence to show that it can result in heart attack, strokes or other cardiovascular events.
What excessive doses can do is effectively change the wiring of the brain making addiction stronger or more likely.

Perhaps the best known and most sinister of amphetamines side effects is “speed psychosis”. One study found that nearly 20% of heavy users had clinical levels of psychosis. Of these up to 15% never fully recover. The symptoms of amphetamine psychosis are very similar to schizophrenia with hallucinations, delusions of persecution and extreme agitation being common.
And this is why amphetamines make it onto this list.

8. Benzodiazepines


Temazepam – a benzodiazepine

AKA: Benzos, downers, duck eggs

Price: $

Valium (diazepam) is probably the best known of all prescription sedatives. They were developed partly in an effort to replace barbiturates (see below) as an anti-anxiety/depressant. Whilst they are somewhat less likely to result in fatal overdose they are highly addictive. Benzodiazepines are also widely available, this has made them the most widely abused class of psychoactive drugs in America.

Much of the misuse of benzodiazepines revolve around managing other drug use, e.g. to make heroin or amphetamine come downs more tolerable. Whilst there is evidence of benzodiazepine addiction alone most users seem to have a multi-drug problem.

What is interesting about this class of drug is the problematic behaviours caused are exactly the opposite you would expect from a drug considered a sedative. For example in the 1990s in the UK, at the height of the ecstasy-fuelled rave scene there was more violence surrounding the use and supply of the benzodiazepine tamazepam than all the other party drugs together.
The same appears true for users. In what are termed paradoxical effects people using these drugs may end exhibiting symptoms the very opposite of those the drug is intended to treat. These symptoms often include psychosis and higher levels of psychopathy. Studies have also shown use of benzodiazepines increases risk taking behaviour.

7. Methadone


Methadone – © Fred Shakeshaft


Price: $$

6. Barbiturates


Prescription barbiturates

AKA: Downers, red devils, pink ladies, purple hearts, goofballs

Price: $

Barbiturates have been around for a long time and were once the drug of choice of the American housewife. They are a class of sedatives which were widely prescribed to treat depression, anxiety and even sleeping problems until the potential dangers were realised in the late 1960s. Since 1970 barbiturates have not been freely available, if they were they would appear higher up this list.

The drugs work by depressing the nervous system which in turns gives the user a feeling of relaxed contentment and even euphoria. They also reduce anxiety and inhibition, somewhat similar to the effects of alcohol. There is no lack of evidence to show the addictive powers of barbiturates and this is both physical and psychological. In fact barbiturate withdrawal is one of the most severe and can be fatal.

The true danger of barbiturates though lies in the ease in which users can overdose. There is a much finer line between a normal and a deadly dose than with most other narcotics. Over the years countless deaths have been attributed to accidental barbiturate overdoses including celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Jimi Hendrix. However, even in “safe” doses barbiturates can eventually kill you with a range of physical and mental side effects.