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Which Drugs Are Perceived as Safe?: Americans Weigh In

By Tamarra Kemsley

When it comes to evaluating the danger of a drug, reality and perception can often disagree. Below is a look at the facts and feelings surrounding marijuana, Ecstasy and opioids.


How a person perceives marijuana depends a great deal on where he or she lives. According to data collected in 2012-2014, very few Northeasterners or Northwesterners deem smoking marijuana once a month as carrying any great risk. The same goes for Coloradans and Alaskans. However, this shifts as a person moves south, with states like Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi demonstrating a great deal more skepticism.1

Further contributing to perceptions of marijuana is its legalization. According to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2016, the perceived danger of marijuana use dropped by 14-16 percent among teens living in Washington and Colorado after state lawmakers OK’d the drug for recreational use.2

This point is a significant one when it comes to the issue of actual danger related to marijuana use. And that is because much like perceptions of the drug, its risks depend on a number of factors, one of which is age. Current research suggests a direct tie between marijuana use onset as a teenager and long-term loss in brain function, even among those who quit during adulthood.3

Other dangers include respiratory problems among those who smoke regularly4 and an increased risk for heart attack among those with preexisting heart problems.5

Marijuana field


EcstasyPatented by Merck pharmaceuticals in 1914, MDMA found its foothold in the 1970s and 80s after some psychiatrists began using the drug to increase patient communication. From there it made its way to the streets, ultimately gaining a Schedule 1 classification next to heroin and LSD. As its popularity soared, so did its adulterants–so much so that “by the new millennium, the drug’s reputation had soured,” Irina Aleksander writes in The New York Times.6

Enter its latest incarnation, Molly. Typically served up as a powder or in crystalline form, this form of MDMA carries with it a reputation of purity, and therefore safety. Aleksander writes: “Thanks in part to that new friendly moniker, MDMA has found a new following in a generation of conscientious professionals who have never been to a rave and who are known for making careful choices in regard to their food, coffee and clothing. Much as marijuana enthusiasts of an earlier generation sang the virtues of Mary Jane, they argue that Molly…feels natural and basically harmless.”7

The facts tell a different story. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, only 13 percent of Molly seized in New York state between 2009 and 2013 actually contained any MDMA. And those that did, weren’t necessarily pure. “You don’t know what adulterants are in there, what contaminants are in there, what it’s been cut with. You truly are playing Russian roulette,” says DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno.8


Alprazolan - XanaxOnce a standard in any physician’s toolbox, opioid use has become a crisis in modern America. A recent Yahoo/Marist poll of 1,122 adults indicates Americans are paying attention to the warnings. Published in 2017, the report found that two-thirds of respondents considered opioids riskier than marijuana, with 83 percent saying they believed weed should be legalized for medical treatment.9

Unlike in the case Molly, reality matches public impressions in the case of opioids. The class of drugs that includes morphine, oxycodone, fentanyl and heroin, among others, claims more lives than any other drug. All told, opioids have claimed more than 183,000 American lives in the last 16 years.10 And unfortunately, things don’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Fatal overdoses from heroin tripled between 2010 and 2015, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.11

There is a glimmer of hope in the study, however. And that is a modest 6 percent decrease in the number of deaths by overdose on so-called “natural” and “semisynthetic” opioids, such as morphine and oxycodone.







7 Ibid.





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