Column: The worst drug of all is ...


Not so very long ago I met with a group of 9- to 12-year-old children at Trilogy Recovery Community. Trilogy offers a support group for young children involved with dependency cases. Alcohol and other drugs have ripped their families apart, and it helps them to talk openly and honestly with other kids and caring adults.

They talk, they listen, they ask a lot of questions. Here’s one I had a tough time answering.

What is the worst drug of all?

My mind went spinning. All drugs are toxic to the young person’s developing brain, so how do you distinguish “bad” from “worst?”

Which drug is the worst, for example, in terms of getting addicted to it? Overdosing or dying from it? Going crazy from it? Getting depressed, anxious, paranoid, suicidal?

What’s the worst drug in terms of losing your motivation to do something with your life? Screwing up your relationships with the people you love the most?

Well, let’s start with nicotine, which is way, way up there on the “worst” list. The statistics tell us that tobacco is the worst drug of all, at least in terms of the people it kills. Every year more than 440,000 Americans die prematurely from smoking — that’s more Americans than died in World War II. Startling statistic, but it’s true.

Tobacco kills more than twice as many people who die from alcohol and other drugs, AIDS, car accidents, murder and suicide. People who smoke will lose, on average, 10 to 15 years of their lives.

Children exposed to secondhand or sidestream smoke (from a cigarette burning in an ashtray, for example) have more frequent and severe asthma attacks, coughing, sneezing, shortness of breath, bronchitis, pneumonia and ear infections. Risks of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) rise, too.

Alcohol is another “worst” drug. Many people can drink alcohol without getting addicted but millions upon millions can’t. Every year some 35,000 people in this country die from cirrhosis of the liver, cancer and other diseases linked to drinking too much beer, wine and spirits.

Another 41,000 or so die from car crashes, falls, drownings, suicides, homicides and other alcohol-related “mishaps.”

More than 7 million children live with a parent with alcohol problems. These children are four times more likely to develop alcohol problems.

Heroin is most people’s choice as the “worst” drug.

“Five years ago we hardly ever heard of anyone using heroin locally,” says Walla Walla police Capt. Chris Buttice. “That’s changed.”

At Trilogy we meet with teenagers and young adults who started using prescription painkillers (hydrocodone, OxyContin, Percocet) as medically prescribed or just to get high. It didn’t take long (weeks? months?) before they were hooked on these powerfully addicting drugs, needing more and more of the drug to get high or, as their addiction progressed, to feel “normal.”

When buying, stealing or doctor-shopping lands them in trouble, a lots of kids turn to the cheaper alternative: heroin.

I once heard that Osama Bin Laden hatched a foolproof plan to destroy America: import cheap, pure heroin, flood the markets and destroy our young people.

I have no idea if there’s any truth to that rumor, but from my perspective working in the trenches with kids and families who are suffering from opioid and heroin addiction, it’s a brilliantly evil plan that is destroying a lot of young lives.

Meth is a witch’s brew of nasty chemicals that hook you fast and eat you up from the inside out.

“You wanna love everything you hate and hate everything you love?” says Heidi, 16. “Go ahead, then — use meth.”

Inhalants? More than a thousand household products (paint thinner, glue, nail polish remover, gasoline) can be inhaled (huffed) for short-term pleasure and the ever-present possibility of long-term disability, pain or sudden death.

Little kids and big kids use inhalants because they’re easy to find (under the sink, in the garage) and they’re “legal.” And if they’re legal, how bad can they be? Check out – and decide for yourself.

Bath salts, PCP, Spice, Benadryl, Ecstasy, Ketamine … I could go on and on, but I’ll end this column with marijuana. Believe me, I have heard all the arguments defending marijuana — it’s safe, it’s not addictive, it’s natural, why else would God put it on this earth?

Ask kids struggling with drug problems what drug they used first. Nine out of 10 will say “marijuana.” Ask them to name their drug of choice. Again, most will say “marijuana.”

Take a look at this fact sheet published by the National Institute for Drug Abuse: Then weigh the facts — marijuana is associated with lower IQ, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, psychotic reactions, heart and lung disease and, yes, addiction. One out of six teenagers who use marijuana will become addicted to it, and the risk is higher for daily users.

So, how do I answer the question “what’s the worst drug of all?”

For kids, at least, my answer is “all of the above.”

Kathy Ketcham is the co-author of 14 books and co-founder of Trilogy Recovery Community. For more information, go to


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