Indiana University Bloomington

Indiana Prevention Resource Center (IPRC)

Common Myths #2

Prescription drugs are not as dangerous to abuse as illegal drugs are to use or abuse.

Numerous studies, including the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), report that, overall, young adult drug abuse is on the decline. However, there has been increasing conversation in the media about prescription drug abuse, which is currently on the rise. Such dialogue is becoming increasingly commonplace; some electronic “teen/tween” hubs, such as YPulse, have featured commentary about prescription drugs. This might lead one to wonder, “Are prescription drugs actually dangerous to abuse? How about when compared to illegal drugs?”

In order to answer this question, let’s draw up a list of some of the potential effects of illegal drug abuse (for marijuana and cocaine) and compare it to a list of some of the potential effects of prescription drug abuse (for sleep aids and stimulants).

MarijuanaCocainePrescription
Sleep Aids
,
Prescription Stimulants,
Potentially addictive Very addictive Potentially addictive Potentially addictive
Distorted perception Stroke Blurred vision Hallucinations
Impaired coordination Seizures Confusion Paranoia
May cause depression Respiratory failure Respiratory depression Digestive problems
May cause suicidal thoughts Heart attack Drowsiness Insomnia
Potential link to lung cancer

Not every person will experience all of these effects. These are simply outcomes that have been observed in some cases.

While there is no specific tool that can compare the effects of these drugs to each other in terms of severity or seriousness, it seems clear that each of the four substances has the potential to cause harm. More importantly, one cannot assume that prescription drug abuse is less dangerous than any other kind of substance use or abuse.


  Office of National Drug Control Policy [ONDCP]. (2008). New national survey reveals cocaine, methamphetamine use drop among young adults; prescription drug abuse increases. Retrieved online on 11/03/08 from: http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/news/press08

  “Casey.” (2008). Drugs on campus: Illegal vs. prescription. Retrieved online on 11/03/08 from: http://www.ypulse.com/drugs-on-campus/

  National Institute on Drug Abuse [NIDA] (2008). Marijuana. Retrieved online on 11/5/08 from:
http:// drugabuse.gov/PDF/InfoFacts/Marijuana08.pdf

  National Institute on Drug Abuse [NIDA] (2008). Cocaine. Retrieved online on 11/5/08 from: http://www.drugabuse.gov/DrugPages/Cocaine.html

  Newton, C.R.H. (2005). Benzodiazepine abuse. Retrieved online on 7/21/08 from: http://www.emedicinehealth.com.

  Lessenger, J.E. & Feinberg, S.D. (2008). Abuse of prescription and over-the-counter medications. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 21, 45-54.

  Sussman, S., Pentz, M.A., Spruijt-Metz, D., and Miller, T. (2006). Misuse of “study drugs:” Prevalence, consequences, and implications for policy. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 1(15), 1-7.

  Staff. (2006). Prescription medicines: Basic facts. Retrieved online on 7/24/08 from: http://www.phoenixhouse.org.