The Most Popular Drugs in the World

At the end of my Project Claudia post, I promised I'd address this one.

What do you think are the most popular drugs in the world?

By some definitions, it is marijuana but there are two others that are legal and so commonly used that people don't think of them as drugs at all.

Before I tell you what they are, I want to define two terms. Emphasis mine:

1. Drug:

“a medicine or other substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body.” (Source: Google “drug definition”)
“any article, other than food, intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of humans or other animals.” (Source:
something and often an illegal substance that causes addiction, habituation, or a marked change in consciousness” (Source: Merriam-Webster)

2. Addiction:
“compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal” (Source: Merriam-Webster)
“the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.” (Source:

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people begin taking drugs for a variety of reasons, including:

  • to feel good
  • to feel better
  • to do better – improve performance
  • curiosity and peer pressure

According to The American Psychiatric Association (APA), symptoms of addiction – or “substance use disorder” are grouped into four categories:

– Impaired control: a craving or strong urge to use the substance; desire or failed attempts to cut down or control substance use
– Social problems: significant problems at home, school, or work, including relationship problems; you stop doing activities you usually enjoy in order to use the substance (or perform the activity, as would be the case with addictions to gambling or internet or porn – to name a few).
– Risky use: you place yourself in settings or situations that could be or are dangerous just so you can continue to use.
– Drug effects: tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. (See M-W definition above.)

Can you think of any everyday, common substances that fit these definitions and characteristics of drugs and addiction?

The two I'm thinking of are both white powders: One bitter, one sweet.

Remember, I'm talking legal drugs here, so no, it's not cocaine.

Common additive substance #1

This is one of them:

Its molecules are made up of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen atoms.

You likely have the means of making it at home. You likely consume it daily, or often.

It's available in grocery stores and specialty shops.

Two writers in The Atlantic referred to it as, “The World’s Most Popular Drug”.

The answer: Caffeine.

Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world. Over 90% of the people in the world consume caffeine on a regular basis.

Caffeine itself is a bitter white powder.

In addition to coffee and energy drinks, caffeine is found in soda (pop/soft drinks) and chocolate bars. More than 80% of adults in the U.S. consume caffeine daily. It's a chemical dependency. As Medical Daily says, “Have you ever waited on line to get a coffee before work and wound up late because you needed one that badly? Caffeine is so socially acceptable that people’s unreasonable dependencies often slide under the radar.”

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The aforementioned article in the Atlantic  – accompanying a podcast – begins with, “A tablespoon of it will kill you, but most of us feel like death without it:”

Think about it: Caffeine affects our brains and our bodies. It's highly addictive. People claim that they can't start their day without it. They turn to it for their afternoon energy crash. They try to quit, they have withdrawal symptoms, they detox, like with other drugs.

There's a term for people who find it difficult to quit to the point it interferes with their daily routine: “Caffeine Use Disorder.”

Withdrawal symptoms can begin when a person goes one day without coffee. It takes less than 24 hours for withdrawal symptoms such as mental fogginess, lack of alertness, muscle fatigue, headaches and irritability to start. Negative effects of caffeine include anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia/disrupted sleep, twitching, increased heart rate and cardiac arrest.

Several years ago I learned that caffeine is a pesticide. That is its role in nature. Caffeine is produced by plants in the beans and leaves and works as an organic pesticide, a nerve poison, paralyzing or killing insects.

So, then, why is caffeine so prevalent and not at all thought of as a drug?

I won't pretend that caffeine doesn't have its benefits, but many substances classified as “drugs” – medicine, mostly – have benefits.

Some of the benefits of caffeine:

  • Better energy and focus (the main reason people consume it)
  • Fat burning potential and metabolism boost
  • An increase in physical performance – it's often used by athletes
  • It's a huge source of antioxidants
  • Caffeine can help prevent certain diseases. Scientific studies have concluded that caffeine is protective against neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease
  • While withdrawal symptoms include headache, caffeine can also relieve headaches.

A few days ago I ran into someone I know and we began to talk about cannabis and such, then medical marijuana, then legalization. I told her that I'd been drafting this post in my head for awhile and she told me that when she used to work with groups of drug addicts, she'd begin sessions by asking what they think is the most common drug. Then she'd hold up her cup of coffee.

I like coffee. I like the taste. I go weeks in which I drink a cup a day, and other weeks I don't drink any. I like a good Americano with a thick crema on top. I love my Aeropress. I don't like the jitters or anxiety that sometimes result. I consume my coffee with fat – either cream or fatty food – because it doesn't affect me as much when I do that. I'm well aware that it's a drug. I'm sometimes torn between drinking “coffee flavoured coffee” (that is, black) and putting cream in it temper the potential affects of caffeine. At home I still occasionally do “butter lattes”.

I went off caffeine for a few weeks recently because I had symptoms of adrenal fatigue and I thought that avoiding caffeine would help. I think it did. I've slowly reintroduced it, but carefully and cautiously and not every day.

Common additive substance #2

You likely consume it daily. It's in a lot of what you eat. It's white and powdered.

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It's sugar!

More white stuff.

Unless you avoid packaged and processed foods entirely, you probably eat way more sugar than you think.


Our brains are wired to seek out sweet foods, but scientists have found that sugar is addictive and stimulates the same pleasure centers of the brain as cocaine or heroin.This is because of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control feelings of reward and pleasure. Dopamine is released in good situations such as physical exercise and touch, but it's also released in response to consumption of certain substances, including caffeine, and narcotics.

Just like those hard-core drugs, getting off sugar leads to withdrawal and cravings, requiring a detox process to wean off.

Like I said, dopamine release isn't bad. It's a good thing. However, the dopamine response sends signals throughout your body that encourages you to continue to seek out that pleasurable feeling, and this is where addiction can kick in. Furthermore, simple carbohydrates – i.e. the sugar in candy, fruits and vegetables – quickly turn into glucose in your bloodstream, causing your blood sugar levels spike and then crash. That crash makes you need more. If you're getting these simple carbohydrates from fruit, vegetables or dairy, you're getting other nutrients such as fiber and protein with them, which slows the process and which provide health benefits.

The negative effects of sugar

Some of the dangers of sugar:

  • Too much sugar can damage the liver.
  • It can cause you to overeat. Fructose fools your metabolism by turning off your body's appetite-control system.
  • It can result in hyperactivity and affect focus.
  • Mood disorders
  • Thyroid issues and autoimmune diseases.
  • It can disturb sleep.

Then there are the cravings. The sugar crash. The yo-yo. As Diane Sanfillipo says in The 21 Day Sugar Detox,

The effect that sugar, ‘hidden' carbs, and refined, processed foods have on our bodies goes far beyond our waistlines. We can't focus, we can't sleep, we have irrational mid-afternoon cravings, and we can't even make it through the day without wanting – or needing – to prop up our energy levels with caffeine or even more sugar!

If you're getting your sugar from nutrient-dense food and in natural sources while eating a balanced diet, it's okay, even healthy. Berries contain sugar but they're full of antioxidants and other healthy nutrients. Dairy is a controversial one, but if you consume it (say, cheese or yogurt), you're getting simple sugars and also vitamins, protein and fat. Honey is antibacterial, antimicrobial and pretty much a miracle. Maple syrup contains nutrients not found anywhere else, including some of the over 24 different antioxidants it contains, plus manganese, zinc, iron, potassium and calcium. This is the type of sugar you want. Additionally, while sugar is inflammatory, maple syrup can fight inflammatory diseases because of its polyphenol antioxidants.

So, avoid the processed/refined stuff. That's where the danger is in relation to overall health effects and addiction. Know that even if you're eating “all natural sugar” you still might be addicted and you still might need to detox.

I've read a few sugar detox books written by people who were addicted to natural sugars and heard it verbally from people. Here's an example, from the book I Quit Sugar: Your Complete 8-Week Detox Program and Cookbook:

I was a sugar addict. I didn't look like one. I didn't drink Coke, or put sugar in my coffee. I've never eaten a Krispy Kreme donut, and ice cream bores me. But here's the thing: I was a covert addict. I hid behind he so-called “healthy sugars” like honey, dark chocolate and fruit.

She then talks about her sugar addiction, starting with the “junk food” sugar and how swapping the “bad” sugars for “healthy” ones didn't eliminate the problems caused by sugar – mood disorders, sleep problems, adrenal issues and Graves disease, an autoimmune disease.

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If you are looking to detox off sugar, you might want to get rid of all of it for awhile, even the “healthy sugar” and then reintroduce it. Check out the 21 Day Sugar Detox program, an online group program (though you can choose how much or as little you interact with others) that happens every month.

Ways to break the sugar addiction

  • Eating protein and fiber can help.
  • Engage in other healthy pleasurable activities. Release the dopamine, and get distracted.

Tying this back to Project Claudia and medical marijuana:

The questions are, why is one classified as a drug and the others aren't even though they fit the definitions of “drug” and relate to “addiction”? Where's the education about the dangers of caffeine and sugar? Education is out there but not to the same extent. I'm guessing that corn subsidies and the resulting corn syrup business in the U.S. has something to do with it.

Of course, there should be regulations on cannabis, just as there are warnings on cigarette packs, and how in Ontario cigarettes have to be kept behind the counter in wall cabinets and not sold to anyone under 19. Before selling tobacco to any person who appears to be less than 25 years old, sellers must ask for ID. There are no such regulations on caffeine and sugar. These cannot be regulated. There's no way. But they are drugs.

I wanted to provide the perspective, though. I wanted to show that caffeine and sugar are commonplace and legal and not considered drugs and that with responsible consumption and regulation and/or guidelines, there's a place for cannabis

Sources and notes: