What are the main differences between legal and illegal drugs? Are legal drugs any safer than illegal drugs? Why are some drugs labeled as legal while others are illegal?

The main difference between legal and illegal drugs is that legal drugs are prescribed by a physician after careful evaluation and have been tested by the Federal Drug Administration, where illegal drugs have not and are acquired through prohibited means.

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Legal drugs are also known as prescription or over-the-counter drugs. A licensed medical professional prescribes these drugs to a specific person for a particular purpose. Uses range from weight loss to smoking cessation, to acne control to pain management. A prescription drug is given to a person after a careful evaluation of the patient's concerns, and the benefits of the drug are believed to outweigh any risks associated with the medication. The drug has been tested by the Federal Drug Administration, and any potential health risks are made available to the patient. Additionally, the drug has been tested for interactions with many other known medications, and the patient is thus aware if the chemical nature of the drug conflicts with other medications he or she may be taking. The potential for misuse of these drugs is overall considered to be quite low, and the patient should be able to avoid any long-term effects.

There are three classes of prescription drugs that do hold particular concerns and a higher likelihood for abuse:

  • Narcotic pain medications: used to manage severe and chronic pain
  • Central nervous system depressants: used to treat issues such as anxiety and stress
  • Central nervous system stimulants: used to treat conditions such as ADD and ADHD

Illegal drugs have not been approved by the government and are acquired through prohibited means. These drugs include substances such as cocaine, heroin, cannabis, and methamphetamine. Your question is a bit misleading about the nature of the "safety" of these drugs. I would argue that these drugs are first quite dangerous because they are illegal. Therefore, consumers have no idea of the purity, concentration, or quality of the drugs they are taking. They have no knowledge of the cleanliness of the environment in which the drug was produced, and they have no knowledge of any unknown additives to the drug they believe they are taking. This aside, drugs in these categories have proven to be quite dangerous. Some are the most highly addictive drugs in production. Here is a recent list of the most addictive drugs:

  1. Cocaine
  2. Heroin
  3. Alcohol
  4. Nicotine
  5. Methamphetamine

An addiction to alcohol and nicotine (legal substances themselves as long as consumers are of appropriate ages) is certainly not healthy and can lead to long-term bodily harm, but an addiction to cocaine is likely to be much more detrimental. In 2016, synthetic opioids surpassed prescription opioids in total deaths in the United States. A total of 19,413 people died of synthetic opioid overdose that year. Another 15,469 people died of heroin overdose, and 10,375 people died of cocaine overdose. By comparison, about 11,000 people die in alcohol-related car accidents per year, and about 1,500 Americans die each year of alcohol poisoning. Both pose a danger, but illegal drugs still pose a greater risk. Additionally, these drugs have never been tested for drug interactions, and people who consume them may not know that they have an underlying heart condition, for example, that will prove fatal with a particular illegal stimulant because there is no physician involved in their monitoring.

Personally, I therefore believe that drugs are labeled as legal because they have been proven most effective in treating a particular condition for particular types of people.

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