When someone we know begins to use drugs, whether it is a parent, peer from school or other social environment, or a child of ours or someone we are close to, we are suddenly wondering about the dangers of the drugs they are reportedly using. This can be true, as well, for those who publicly abuse drugs and become dependent to the extent that they are receiving some type of media attention for their drugging behavior or are arrested for having the substance on them illegally/with or without a prescription.
DrugWarFacts.org publishes a consistently-updated book online about drugs that is timely and pertinent to various aspects of drugs of abuse. If you're wanting to understand the dangers of dependence with specific drugs, the following chart can be highly informative:
The arrow on the left of the chart indicates the dangers of the drugs listed. The severity of their propensity for dependence is indicated both numerically on the left as well as in the bar graph above each substance.
Withdrawal is the second measure on this chart, indicating the consequences of stopping the substance suddenly, as with alcohol and heroin. Withdrawal symptoms can certainly indicate level of use and abuse of a substance and is a strong measure of dependence on or addiction to the substance.
Tolerance indicates amount of drug that is going to satisfy the cravings created by the drug itself as the body becomes accustomed to the presence of the substance over time. This translates to "need" for more of the substance to stave off withdrawal symptoms and maintain the same level that has been reached for cessation of withdrawal symptoms.
Reinforcement is a measure of how strong the "desire" may be (cravings) for more of the substance. Reinforcement is a term indicating the amount of positive or negative feeling that accompanies an action by a person. (Negative reinforcement is spanking a child to get them to discontinue a behavior, positive reinforcement is giving them a treat when they perform well.) With drugs, reinforcement is the amount of pleasure the drug produces and the time lapse involved in lasting pleasurable effects.
Intoxication is the measure for how strong the effects of the drug are. This also indicates the level of functioning the person who uses/abuses the substance will achieve under the influence of the substance. This measure may be indicative of the amount of harm the substance can do to the persons' ability to withstand abuse and remain non-dependent. Levels of intoxication are somewhat indicative of their strength, depending on doses and amounts ingested.
There is no measure included in this graph that allows for other aspects of addiction and/or dependence upon the substances. While many will succumb to an addiction, over time, to certain drugs, even those used medicinally as prescribed; there is no measure for the likelihood that they are metabolically inclined toward addiction. Persons who are genetically predisposed to addiction and who have specific markers in their personal development indicating higher likelihood of substance dependence will be at higher risk for drugs that are high in dangerous markers as well.
As a tool for use by laymen and women to determine the inherent dangers of specifics types of drugs, this is a great graph to reference. The booklet has many good articles that inform the public on policy and other aspects of America's War on Drugs.
 Common Sense for Drug War Policy. Drug War Facts. 6th Edition. Retrieved online from: http://www.drugwarfacts.org
Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 20 years, she is currently working on her certification as an addictions' counselor.