The world’s views on drugs have changed dramatically over the years. Less than a century ago most currently illegal drugs were legal and used recreationally like marijuana and cocaine, and even medically in the case of many opiates, at the same time, the likes of LSD and ketamine didn’t even exist.
It was in the early half of the 20th century that people began demonizing drugs, an iconic example was the prohibition period across the USA. In this time period, it wasn’t just alcohol that was made illegal, marijuana was too, being labelled as a poison from as early as 1906. Things were only made worse with the country’s disastrous war on drugs beginning in the 70’s which by 2011 the Global Commission on Drug Policy declared “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world”. The war on drugs continues to this day, but in the last number of decades the world has eased up on drugs that aren’t tobacco & alcohol and this is evident with marijuana particularly being made legal in a new state every few years.
Taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legality_of_cannabis_by_country which itself has over 200 references for this data
Even just two decades ago this map looked extremely different, in 1996, 2 days before my birth, California just legalized medicinal marijuana.
It isn’t just marijuana that’s being considered for medical use. MDMA for example, better known as ecstasy, is known to help people with issues ranging from anxiety to PTSD.
Changing view on drugs isn’t however an international one, especially in the far east in countries like Japan & China, where drug laws are extremely strict, even in the futuristic smart city state of Singapore one can get the death penalty for smuggling in marijuana, and for carrying a few grams for personal use, which in Ireland where it is also illegal would get you a slap on the wrist and maybe a small fine, may land you in prison for decade.
It was this worldwide divide in people’s views on drugs that lead us to ask myself which drugs truly are dangerous and which ones aren’t? But which criteria defines whether a drug is dangerous? Dependency? Self-harm? Harm to others? We had to find out everything.
As we can see from this graph, marijuana appears to be the most common drug that adults on probation were under the influence of at the time of offense. However, we must take these figures with a grain of salt as a lot of questions still remain unanswered. Are these charges drug-related offenses, or separate crimes altogether that the suspect happened to be under the influence of while committing? Drowsiness and fatigue are common features one would have after taking cannabis, I find it hard to believe that anyone under the influence of this drug would have the energy or willpower in them to go off and commit any form theft or assault in any shape or form. For this reason in particular I believe that marijuana is the most popular on the list as a result of the suspects being caught in possession of the drug. Ganja is also known to have an incredibly strong and putrid odour, which would stop a lot of users from taking it indoors. Smoking marijuana outside leaves the users more open to being caught by the police then they would have if they were indoors. As well we must also take into account that marijuana might very well be the most common and accessible of these drugs, which would explain its popularity on the chart and the unpopularity of heroin. Figures and visualizations can only tell us so much. Context is crucial for each case for us to interoperate the circumstances of each scenario. This social graph makes it seem that people who smoke marijuana are violent, thuggish people which simply isn’t true. In any case, data can always be taken out of context to spread misinformed views if one wishes to push an agenda or if they are simply uninterested in the truth.
The two graphs above represents statistics compiled from Drugs and Crime Facts – US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. (https://www.bjs.gov/content/dcf/duc.cfm).
This graph visualises the percentages of former drug use of those caught driving while intoxicated. At first glance you instantly are led to believe that those driving under the influence of marijuana or hashish are the biggest problem on the roads, followed by cocaine, stimulants and so forth, but that is not what this graph is telling us. This graph represents prior drug use by DWI Offenders as opposed to stating what percentage of offenders were prosecuted while under the influence of the drugs listed above. The offender’s past use of drugs is unrelated to the conversation, this information is taken out of context and used to convey a motion that the majority of DWI offenders are under the influence of marijuana while driving.
The above graph is from Transport Canada – Road Safety in Canada. (https://www.tc.gc.ca/eng/motorvehiclesafety/tp-tp15145-1201.htm)
This graph represents the percentage of drug and alcohol positive cases according to age group. In contrast to the graph from the US Department of Justice, this graph compares the statistics of both drugs and alcohol positive cases, as opposed to solely identifying drugs as the issue with DWI cases. From looking at this graph, it is clear that alcohol poses a much greater risk in this case than drugs, especially with the younger demographic. As the age groups grow higher, we see that there are more drug-related cases, an explanation for which is thought to be the misuse of prescription or over the counter drugs such as valium or cold remedies by older people. Although the percentage of drug-related DWI cases is striking, the percentage of alcohol-related cases is far greater. However, the American statistics conveniently do not compare the drug and alcohol related cases and choose to focus on the prior use of drugs of DWI offenders. A reason for this may be the influence of the towering commercial enterprise that is the alcohol industry in America. In an attempt to ensure that people choose alcohol over drugs, drugs are demonised by using these statistics and examples of very specific cases out of context to provoke the idea that alcohol must be safer and less harmful. This is not to say that drugs are safe and unharmful, it just proves the point that data visualisation can be utilised to bend the truth for the benefit of those providing the information.
So when it comes to understanding what drugs are relatively safe and which are extremely dangerous and damaging what statistics can we trust? Can we trust statistics at all? We thought what if we looked at the potential of dependency of drugs, as well the lethal dose. The vertical axis shows how addictive the drug is, the horizontal axis is essentially how dangerous it is.
Gable, R. S. (2006). Acute toxicity of drugs versus regulatory status. In J. M. Fish (Ed.),Drugs and Society: U.S. Public Policy, pp.149-162, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
The data highlights how drugs like heroin, cocaine, and alcohol cause a high number of deaths a year while drugs like marijuana and LSD are practically impossible to overdose on. We can also see drugs like ketamine, which have an extremely bad name, is actually considered not too addictive, and seen as only a moderately dangerous drug, about on par with nicotine, which is one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in the world. So should this graph be your guide to which drugs are safe to take or not? Is it time to start popping tabs of acid and smoking rakes of weed? Well, not really. It’s true misleading charts is a good way to lie, as discussed extensively in the book How to Lie with Statistics by Darrel Huff where there is a whole chapter on how one can create a misleading chart by simply messing with the Y-axis. However this chart isn’t misleading, it shows exactly what it says – dependency and lethal dose ratios of each drug, but these criteria aren’t all that make a drug dangerous, and yet many drug advocate websites post statistics like these to show that drugs are fine for you. What this chart doesn’t show is how, for example, weed does impair a lot of people who smoke it, we know first-hand how it can induce the likes of anxiety and depression in certain people.
David Nutt, Leslie King, Lawrence Phillips, “Drug Harms in the UK: A Multicriteria Decision Analysis,” The Lancet, Nov. 1, 2010
So if not just lethal dose & dependence what statistic should we be looking at if we want to know which drugs are dangerous and which ones aren’t? Well, we discovered the truth is you shouldn’t be looking at any one thing for something as general as danger, and this is the best chart we could find, which compiles 16 different categories of ‘harm’ caused by each drug. Through this graph, we get both the total level of harm caused by taking each drug, along with what is specifically harmful about it.
It is unsurprising to see alcohol rated as the most harmful drug. While it’s high position may come down to it’s extremely frequent use and thus knowledge it is in my opinion undoubtedly dangerous – imagine ‘a night out on the lash’, hundreds of drunk people, fighting, screaming, yelling, crying, no other drug causes so much violence and mayhem, and yet we are so used to it.
In the middle were the likes of marijuana and ketamine, with no deaths occurring directly from these drugs, they were a couple of the few where the issues are mostly socioeconomic, and I wonder if once made legal & socially acceptable the harmfulness meter would go down.
LSD overall is still ranked amongst the safest drugs to take, as it has been in all the data we have used so far, what this new data shows us is that whilst overall it is relatively safe, when it comes to impairment of mental functioning it ranks as high as crack-cocaine, and that’s the kind of thing people need to look into when considering taking these kinds of drugs – there is more ways to be harmed by drugs than crime, addiction, and overdosing.
To conclude; data doesn’t lie, people do, data doesn’t misinterpret itself, people misinterpret data. Stay vigilant out there in this dark-age of misinformation on the net.