This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Biology 202, Spring 2005
Third Web Papers
On Serendip

Legal Drugs and the United States

Rhianon Price

The United States is inarguably a very medicated society. From the moment we enter the world to the moment we leave it, it is normal for legal drugs to be available to us upon demand. Most Americans probably do not even think about the effects some drugs have on their bodies; they are legal, after all, therefore they must be without negative consequence. Yet many legal drugs such as caffeine, nonprescription pain medications, nicotine, and alcohol, which are used frequently in American society, do have effects that are not beneficial.

Caffeine, for example, is a drug that many Americans rely on daily in order to function, as they believe, normally. Caffeine is a stimulant that makes those who ingest it more energized, more awake, and more capable of sustaining intellectual activity; these are the effects that most Americans are seeking when they choose to ingest caffeine. However, as one becomes more accustomed to caffeine over time or with greater consumption, he or she requires more caffeine to produce the same effects ((2)). Caffeine can be consumed in coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, and chocolate, among other things ((1)), and takes 15-45 minutes to reach its maximum effect ((2)).

There are negative effects of caffeine even in a "normal" dosage of 300 mg, as it can decrease manual coordination and reaction time to visual and auditory stimuli. Furthermore, it is possible to overdose on caffeine, which may cause: nausea, headache, indigestion and diarrhea, irregular heartbeat and respiration, sleep disturbances, light-headedness, dizziness, nervousness, jitteriness, and an increased need to urinate ((1) and (2)). In severe cases of "caffeinism," anxiety attacks, delirium, drowsiness, ringing ears, diarrhea, vomiting, light flashes, difficulty breathing, and convulsions can all occur ((2)). Moreover, it is possible to experience caffeine withdrawal, symptoms of which include: tiredness, headache, nausea, nervousness, reduced alertness, depression, inability to focus, and confusion. Symptoms of withdrawal usually last only a few days, but can last up to seven ((1) and (2)). Nevertheless, despite these negative side effects, most Americans, driven by the United States' constant social demand for action and mental activity (at the workplace, in schools, and even at home), find that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Over-the-counter pain medication such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), and aspirin are another type of drug that many Americans use daily. These drugs relieve minor aches, pains, fevers, inflammation, and muscle and joint stiffness ((3), (4), and (8)). However, they are not without risks or negative side effects. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage, especially to those who drink alcohol regularly, take acetaminophen while fasting, or exceed the recommended dosage and duration. In fact, acetaminophen is believed to be responsible for up to 40% of American's liver failures, and sends 56,000 Americans to the emergency room every year ((3)). Mild side effects of ibuprofen can cause dizziness, headache, nausea, diarrhea or constipation, depression, and fatigue, while severe ones include allergic reaction, peptic and mouth ulcers, muscle cramps, heartburn, and gastrointestinal bleeding ((4) and (5)). Aspirin can cause heartburn, indigestion, and ringing in the ears, as well as fever, seizures, allergic reaction, dizziness, confusion, and even hallucinations ((8)). Making a bad situation worse, the more pain medications ingested, the less natural pain-relieving chemicals that one's body produces ((5)). Nonetheless, because these pain medications do not require prescriptions, can be administered to children and babies, and are recommended by "experts," family, and friends to treat even minor discomforts, many Americans believe that these drugs can be taken in doses larger and for greater duration than what is safe ((3)), and do not even consider the possibility of negative side effects.

Tobacco is a controlled substance utilized by many Americans despite their knowledge of its harmful side effects. Tobacco contains nicotine, a highly addictive drug that causes the release of epinephrine ((9)). Epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline) stimulates the heart and increases blood pressure, metabolic rate, and glucose concentration in the blood ((10)). This stimulation causes an almost immediate increase in energy and alertness; I, a nonregular smoker, can feel it immediately after the first drag, a unique sensation of something rushing through my bloodstream and making me giddy and light-headed. This high, however, is followed by depression and fatigue when the nicotine runs out of one's system, creating the desire for more nicotine. Withdrawal from nicotine causes anger, irritability, aggression, decrease in ability to cope with stressful situations, and motor and cognitive impairment ((9)); the body comes to depend on nicotine for this high.

It would probably be difficult to find an American who is not aware of the dangers of tobacco. Tobacco causes developmental problems in fetuses, stillbirth, various forms of cancer, and a host of other medical problems caused by the smoking or chewing of tobacco ((9)). Nonetheless, because of its powerful physical stimulation, its extreme addictiveness, as well as human mentality that negative consequences do not apply to oneself, 70 to 80 million Americans nationally use tobacco at least once a month ((9)).

Another controlled substance, alcohol, is one that many Americans still ingest daily. Alcohol can facilitate relaxation, mood elevation, lowered inhibitions in social situations, and pain relief ((6)). It is quite pleasant to sit at home and drink a beer after hours in the office or classroom or have a few drinks with friends on the weekend or after a long day. However, because it is a controlled substance, most Americans are fully aware of the negative side effects: decrease or loss of motor skills, nausea or vomiting, increased impulsiveness, emotional volatility, increased need for urination, dizziness and confusion, blackouts and memory loss, hangover, increased likeliness of unplanned sexual encounters (including unintentional promiscuity and date rape), damage to developing fetuses, permanent brain and liver damage, coma, and death ((6)). Most of those who consume alcohol will experience some of these negative side effects at some point in their lives.

What drugophile Americans may not realize is that alcohol does not mix well with other drugs, which we so often have available to us. When mixed with nonprescription pain relievers, damage can occur to the stomach lining and the liver, as well as cause ulcers and gastrointestinal bleeding. Mixing alcohol and Valium decreases alertness, impair judgement, and cause death. A combination of alcohol and high blood pressure medication can reduce blood pressure to dangerous lows. Alcohol and anticoagulants increase the potency of the anticoagulant and can lead to fatal bleeding ((7)). While Americans realize that alcohol has negative side effects, its dangers may not actually be fully understood.

Why are Americans addicted to drugs? It is not all entirely a physical dependency. American society demands high levels of mental activity that certain drugs can make easier to accomplish or sustain, causes stress which certain drugs can alleviate, and wholeheartedly endorses the utilization of many of these drugs because we view them as both normal and necessary. Moreover, once they are present in our bodies, they are difficult habits to break; they also may encourage each other's usage. It is a socially very normal thing to drink two or three cups of coffee a day to fight weariness and mental fatigue, toss back a few nonprescription pain killers that may increase fatigue and necessitate another cup of coffee or a quick cigarette while also causing a headache that may prompt the consumption of another few pain killers, have a soda at lunch whose caffeine adds to the coffee's and cause a mild headache which another cigarette is consumed in order to relieve, and then have a beer or two upon arriving home in order to relax from the long and tiring day which may actually cause more weariness and necessitate another few cigarettes. It is a very cyclical cycle, too, as all of these drugs are at least mildly addictive, and who in America's busy, busy society has time to break an addiction or to feel poorly? Besides, if one feels poorly, one can always take another Tylenol, right?


1) Too Much Caffeine , from Information for Health Professionals.

2) Caffeine Effects , by Erowid.

3) Tylenol Questions , by Tylenol Dangers.

4) Ibuprofen , by

5) The Unexpected Dangers of Pain Relievers , by Leslie Pepper in Marie Claire, Dec. 2001.

6) Alcohol Effects , by Erowid.

7) Using Alcohol to Stop Pain Can Be Dangerous , by

8) Aspirin , by

9) NIDA InfoFacts: Cigarettes and Other Nicotine Products , by The National Institute on Drug Abuse.

10) Epinephrin , by

| Course Home | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:53:04 CDT