issue 140 October 1984
A consumer guide to drugs
It is vital that we know what drugs will do to us before we take them –
it is the lack of knowledge that makes them dangerous.
The New Internationalist presents a guide to the legal status,effects,
dangers and addictiveness of the most common drugs.
Status: Legal for adults.
Nature: A drink produced by the fermentation of fruits, vegetables or grain.
Effects: Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream via the stomach and takes effect within 5-10 minutes. Effects vary according to individual health, weight and sex but, as a rough measure, three single whiskies drunk in one hour might result in 0.05% alcohol content in the blood - this would lift spirits and lessen inhibitions (a single whisky is equivalent to one glass of wine or half a pint of beer). Six double whiskies in an hour might produce uncontrollable behaviour and impair the functioning of the central nervous system; and 12 double whiskies in an hour might produce profound anaesthesia, near coma and death. Women get drunk more easily than men because they have less water per body weight. They also stay drunk longer if they are on the pill but get drunk slower during menstruation. Hangovers are actually the body’s response of shock at being subjected to a substantial dose of a poisonous substance.
Dangers: Frequent intoxication damages the mouth, oesophagus, stomach and especially the liver, where overloading of the metabolizing process can cause hepatitis and cirrhosis. Heavy drinking affects the heart and is linked to brain disorders. Alcoholic drink provides calories, giving energy and thus reducing appetite. But it contains no vitamins, minerals, amino acids or other essential nutrients. So if food consumption decreases there is a danger of malnutrition and if it continues one of obesity (with attendant heart problems). Alcohol is particularly dangerous when taken with barbiturates or tranquillisers, causing deep sedation, a drop in blood pressure and possible breathing failure.
Addictiveness: Highly addictive. Severe withdrawal symptoms (delirium tremens, or DTs) are acute panic, delusions, exhaustion and trembling to the point of seizure. This lasts 3-10 days. Severe DTs has a fatality rate of 20%, higher than any drug except the barbiturates.
(from Papaver somniferum)
Status: Possession and trading illegal.
Nature: The poppy produces opium as a resin, which can be refined into morphine (10 times stronger) or heroin (25 times stronger). Heroin is a white powder which is sniffed, smoked or made into a solution to he injected intravenously. It is rarely swallowed, though this is the safest method.
Effects: Induces reduced awareness of pain and a sense of euphoria and cool detachment. Injection into the veins jolts the nervous system to produce a rush of sensation. Peak is reached within minutes and effects last 4-6 hours. Side-effects: constricted pupils, itching skin, irregular menstruation, nausea, runny nose, constipation and joint pains. A decreased appetite for sex and food is common, as is general apathy.
Dangers: No evidence of long-term organic damage. Physical deterioration is caused by the lifestyle not by the drug — dirty needles cause hepatitis and liver damage: street supplies are often adulterated with more dangerous substances.
Addictiveness: Highly addictive, especially when injected, though dependence is not immediate or inevitable — many use heroin occasionally. Physical dependence is not as significant as the strong psychological and social dependence developed by some users. Withdrawal symptoms (cold turkey) are less horrific than supposed, resembling a week’s bout of flu with aching, hot and cold flushes and trembling. Unlike alcohol or barbiturate withdrawal, sudden withdrawal from heroin cannot be fatal, though a feeling of weakness can last several months.
Status: Legal by prescription: illegal otherwise.
Nature: Synthetic stimulants best known under trade names such as Benzedrine and Dexedrine or in slang as speed or sulphate. They can be swallowed or injected but are now usually sniffed.
Effects: Very similar to cocaine, except that a single dose lasts 3-4 hours. The body needs two days to recover fully, even after small doses.
Dangers: Regular users of high doses are likely to suffer delusions and paranoia which can result in psychosis — this can take months to recover from. Lack of sleep and food lowers resistance to disease. Also carries the increased risks associated with high blood pressure.
Addictiveness: Not physically addictive, but the psychological dependence can be a very hard habit to break.
Status: Legal for adults.
Nature: The dried leaves of the tobacco plant are burned and the smoke inhaled.
Effects: Cigarette smoke consists of droplets of tar, nicotine, carbon monoxide and other gases. One or two cigarettes increase pulse-rate and blood-pressure, reduce appetite and lower skin temperature. Inhaling can be both relaxing and stimulating.
Dangers: The more you smoke, the more likely you are to suffer from heart disease; blood clots; lung. mouth and throat cancer; lung infections; strokes; bronchitis; and bad circulation. Women who smoke tend to produce smaller babies. On average each cigarette is said to shorten the life of an habitual smoker by five and a half minutes.
Addictiveness: Nicotine is the most addictive drug known to science. Withdrawal symptoms range from nervousness and headaches to palpitations and constipation.
Nature: Organic or carbon-based compounds such as glue and paint give off vapours which can be inhaled (sniffed) usually from inside plastic bags.
Effects: A cross between alcohol and a mild hallucinogen. Merriness or dreaminess, flashes of light (‘shooting stars’), hot flushes and a floating feeling. Depresses the breathing and heart-rate. Effects last only minutes after sniffing. Repeated sniffing causes hangover effects of fatigue, forgetfulness and loss of concentration.
Dangers: These arise more from the situation than from the drug - glue-sniffing in an unsafe place (such as the canal bank or railway track) is as dangerous as being drunk there would be. In a secure place the main risks are of suffocation if plastic bags are put right over the head and of choking on vomit if sniffing carries on to the point of unconsciousness. But aerosols and cleaning fluids are much more dangerous than glue, giving a risk of heart failure and liver or kidney damage.
Status: Legal by prescription: trading without prescription not allowed, though possession is.
Nature: Frequently prescribed in tablet or capsule form. The most common are the benzodiazepines known by the trade names Valium, Librium and Mogadon.
Effects: Depression of mental activity. Relaxation of site muscles, sedation and reduction of anxiety. Aggression due to lowered inhibitions is possible. Ineffective as sleeping pills after two weeks’ continuous use because tolerance develops.
Dangers: Minimal physical damage.
Addictiveness: Physical dependence can result from long-term use even of the normal prescribed doses. Withdrawal symptoms can include insomnia, anxiety, nausea and mental confusion (which too often lead doctors to re-prescribe tranquillisers). Psychological dependence very common.
(from Erythroxylia coca)
Status: Possession and trade illegal.
Nature: The leaves of the Andean coca bush are processed into cocaine hydrochloride, a white powder which is usually sniffed.
Effects: Stimulant of the central nervous system that mimics the natural stress response of the body - it increases the heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and blood sugar level. Produces euphoria, indifference to pain and fatigue, and a feeling of great physical and mental strength. Only lasts about 20 minutes.
Dangers: The most common physical problem is damage to the nasal membranes caused by regular sniffing. Chronic users see euphoria replaced by anxiety, lucidity by confusion, alertness by insomnia, and sexual stimulation by impotence, though all of these clear up once they stop taking the drug.
Addictiveness: Not physically addictive. but a strong psychological dependence on the grandiose sense of well-being it affords can result.
Status: Possession and trading illegal.
Nature: The cannabis plant either has its leaves dried for smoking (‘grass’ or marijuana) or has its resin scraped off and compressed into blocks to be smoked or eaten (hash).
Effects: These depend partly on the expectations and mood of the user - it is common to experience little the first time. Hilarity, relaxation, greater appreciation of sound and colour, greater awareness of all physical sensations, elongation of time. Effects begin minutes after smoking, much longer after eating. No hangover of the alcohol type, though a jaded feeling may follow a heavy dose.
Dangers: The main dangers are those related to smoking. Herbal cannabis (‘grass’) produces 50% more tar than the same weight of a popular strong tobacco brand. Also, cannabis cigarettes are usually smoked to the end and the smoke held longer and deeper in the lungs than tobacco. This means that two or three cannabis cigarettes can carry the same risk of lung damage as a greater number of ordinary cigarettes.
Addictiveness: Not physically addictive. Mild psychological dependence possible.
Status: LSD and mescaline illegal; mushrooms legal unless processed.
Nature: LSD (d-lysergic acid diethylamide) is a chemical derived from ergot, a fungus found growing wild on rye and other grasses; liberty caps (psylocibin) and the fly agaric or toadstool (Amanisa mescaria) are varieties of mushroom; mescaline is derived from the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii) found in Mexico and the US.
Effects: LSD has the most powerful effects, which are emotional or psychological rather than physical. Visual effects, intensified colours, distorted shapes and sizes, movement of stationary objects. Also vivid mental pictures. Emotional reactions vary but LSD especially can produce ecstatic or even mystical experiences.
Dangers: Unpleasant reactions (bad trips) are more likely if the user is unstable, anxious or depressed and may include disorientation and sometimes panic. Prolonged serious anxiety is possible but very rare. Short but vivid re-experiences of part of a previous trip have been reported. By far the greatest danger comes from eating the wrong mushrooms - fungi of the same family are highly poisonous and potentially fatal. Picking the right varieties requires considerable botanical knowledge.
Addictiveness: Not addictive and diminishing effects discourage regular use.
Nature: A stimulant alkaloid drunk in coffee, tea, cocoa or soft drinks; eaten in chocolate.
Effects: Stimulates the central nervous system on all levels. Gives a slight lift, counteracting drowsiness and improving the ability to think clearly and do physical tasks without fatigue. Stomach acidity is raised and urine production increased. 400 mg causes irritability, nervousness and headaches. 800 mg causes hallucinations (ringing in the ears and light flashes). Caffeine content per standard cup in milligrams: ‘real coffee 80-120; instant coffee 70-100; tea 30-60; cocoa 30-50; cola 20. A 100gm bar of chocolate contains 12-18 mg.
Dangers: Even moderate doses result in prolonged gastric secretion and so help cause ulcers. Larger quantities contribute to the risk of heart disease and bladder or kidney cancer.
Addictiveness: Withdrawal syndrome becomes especially noticeable at a level of about 370 mg a day, when stopping causes drowsiness and headaches. But mild tiredness and irritability can result from missing an habitual morning cup of coffee. Lethal dose is 10 gm, but as this would mean drinking 100 cups of coffee in a short time it’s not very likely to apply.
Status: As tranquillizers.
Nature: Hypnosedatives used as sleeping pills and known under trade names such as Tuinal, Seconal, Nembutal and Amytal.
Effects: As alcohol.
Dangers: As alcohol, but the fatal dose is much smaller — 10 Tuinal can kill. The hazards increase if they are taken with alcohol. Heavy users are liable to pneumonia (because the cough reflex is depressed) and hypothermia. Injecting barbiturates is possibly the most dangerous drug abuse of all.
Addictiveness: Strong physical addictiveness — as with alcohol sudden withdrawal from addiction can kill.