Should we consider illegal substances more dangerous than legal?

In this post I want to explore question of drug dependency, compare harm that can be brought by substance abuse and find out if we should really be afraid of illicit drugs.

I am going to use data from Global Health Data Exchange and World Health Organisation, all of my datasets you can find on GitHub and code for graphs in Jupyter Notebook.

Drug use disorder in the world

On the map above we can see that the prevalence is ranged from 0.4 to 3.5 percent, which is lower than the prevalence of alcohol use disorder (up to 5%) or smoking addiction (up to 20%). The highest level of drug dependency was in the US in 2017 where around 1-in-30 was addicted to drugs.

We can also tell that numbers are growing over time. To me there are a couple reasons for that. First of all designer drugs (like spice or mephedrone) are still a common case and they are number two most addictive of all. Secondly opioids becoming more and more addictive as they get more
synthetic components.

Which drugs are the most dangerous?

Opioids have always been drug number one when it comes to death toll. They are the most addictive and therefore the most dangerous. From opioids in 2017 died 530k people, which is 0,0069% from the population.

Deaths from alcohol and illicit drugs

To compare share of deaths from alcohol and from illicit drugs I took data for both direct deaths and indirect deaths (like liver diseases or suicide). As you can see on the chart, percent of drug consumers who die from illicit drugs is more than two times smaller than percent of alcohol consumers who die from drinking.

Substance harm

On the plot above I compared amount of direct and indirect deaths per population, caused by tobacco, alcohol, sugar and illicit drugs. To be honest I was surprised by the results I got. As you can see numbers blast off when it comes to tobacco. I believe high numbers are caused by the amount of smokers in the population (almost 1-in-5).


As you can see I am trying to make the point here that we underestimate the harm that some substances that are already a part of our everyday life can cause. And focus too much on tabooing things, instead of studying the subject and working different outcomes out.