When a drug is ingested freely of one’s own accord, the only individual being harmed is the user themselves, right? The known effects of excessive alcohol (such as drink-driving) can provide a sobering rebuke. Nonetheless, drug legislation and criminal prosecution has proven to be an extremely grey area of the law.
While most would agree that restricting the availability of potentially dangerous drugs (especially for young people) is justified, it’s less easy to understand why others must be banned alongside them, especially if some could have useful medical and therapeutic properties. Attitudes to cannabis, for instance, have softened across the world recently.
In the UN’s established guidelines of the 1960-1970s, most countries have their own unique classification system for illegal drugs. The UK’s Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) sorts them into 3 categories with decreasing severities of punishment attached to their possession and/or supply:
- Class A = Cocaine, ecstasy (MDMA), LSD, heroin, opium/morphine, crystal meth
- Class B = Cannabis, amphetamines, codeine, ketamine
- Class C = Anabolic steroids, benzodiazepines (diazepam), khat
The most dangerous Class A drugs have a life sentence and/or unlimited fine attached to their production and/or supply, with just possession alone giving 7 years in prison. These drugs are usually the most addictive, with the greatest (and most dangerous) effects on the body.
What is it about drugs that makes increasing numbers of people willing to risk their own health, prison or (in some countries) a death penalty to obtain them?
Ecstasy and LSD are two extremely similar artificially synthesised recreational drugs made popular with the “Rave” dance culture of the 90s. They act by stimulating excessive release of both dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Both substances are neurotransmitters that relay chemical signals in the nervous system. Dopamine is associated with feelings of euphoria, bliss, motivation, and concentration that come with reward-motivated behaviour, while serotonin is commonly known as the “happy” chemical that likewise promotes feelings of happiness and well-being. These chemicals, combined with a mild hallucinogenic, can create intense visual and auditory distortions, “trips”, that can be extremely gratifying but also have very unpleasant comedown symptoms.
Heroin is a synthetic variant of morphine, a powerful natural stimulant and anaesthetic derived from the opium poppy that can increase dopamine concentrations in the body by up to 200%. Heroin is much more potent than its parent drug, however, and enters the brain quicker when injected into the bloodstream. It brings a “rush” of intense euphoria and a subsequent “high” that users have described as being extremely pleasurable. Such properties make heroin extremely addictive, but the withdrawal symptoms are extremely unpleasant: nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhoea coupled with intense cravings for the drug. Heroin addiction is extremely life-threatening, with regards to the effects of overdoses (which inhibit respiration), withdrawal symptoms, or the high infection risk with hepatitis or HIV/AIDS from sharing needles. Addicts require ever-increasing doses to satisfy their craving, and the dose that causes death is only slightly higher than the minimum amount required to give a “high”. Addiction can be treated through the substitute drug methadone. Similar in structure, it triggers the same brain opiate receptors, alleviating the craving for heroin without the “high”.
Derived from coca plant leaves, which primarily grow in the South American Andes. It works by preventing dopamine-release processes of the nervous system from switching “off”, leading to an abnormal (up to 3x) activation of the brain’s reward pathways. The white cocaine sulphate powder is usually “sniffed” into the nose for rapid bloodstream absorption. Alternatively, the “crack cocaine” variant can be smoked or injected to give an even more rapid and intense “high”. Experiments on animals have shown that they too will rapidly learn to self-administer and continue to do so at the expense of all else. Crack cocaine addiction in humans leads to a deep depression after the “high” has ended, and addicts may seek their next dose to lift this condition by extreme means. Contrastingly, users of powdered cocaine usually dose more infrequently, and often run a lower risk of addiction. Investigations into the mechanisms behind cocaine’s effects have been used to create antidepressants with a similar mode of action, but milder and without risks of dangerous addiction. The most famous example is Prozac by Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company.
The most widely used illegal drug is derived from the dried leaves and flowering heads of the cannabis plant. The plant’s primary psychoactive ingredient is the complex THC chemical. THC interacts with specific receptors in the brain that normally adjust sensitivity to pain and produces effects not unlike those of alcohol – euphoria and an inability to hold a coherent conversation, followed by tiredness and sleep. Higher doses can distort one’s sense of time or generate hallucinations. Cannabis’s effects on pain mechanisms may also form the basis of its medical uses; in patients with multiple sclerosis and other neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s, clinical trials have had success in treating any associated chronic pain, also bringing with it a stimulation in appetite that helps to alleviate weight loss. While evidence suggests that long-term cannabis use causes addiction, lung cancer and deficits in higher brain function, there are many who believe that the potential health benefits outweigh the risks enough for the drug to be legalised and regulated. Already, it’s been legalised in the Netherlands, Canada and some US states. UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid recently approved the prescription of medical cannabis.