I think most people have an internal ranking system when it comes to drugs. Crack and heroin are usually at the top of this list for addictiveness, harmfulness and general ick factor. Then you slide on down the list with, maybe, marijuana, alcohol and tobacco coming somewhere around the bottom. Of course, this list varies quite a bit according to who you are and how informed you are.
I’ve talked to some people where there is no ranking — all drugs are equally evil except for the legal ones. Others are more lenient, believing marijuana to be completely harmless. In some cases, tobacco gets ranked somewhere around thermonuclear war and that human-race-destroying virus from Stephen King’s ‘The Stand,’ but I generally believe those people are delusional.
Nevertheless, you wouldn’t really expect alcohol to show up as being more harmful than crack or heroin. But according to scientists from Britain’s Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD), heroin and crack cocaine rank 2nd and 3rd in line behind alcohol as most harmful drugs.
The scale, published in a study in the journal the Lancet, was developed to assess the combined harms to both the user and to others, including society at large. The researchers rated alcohol the most harmful overall and almost three times as harmful than cocaine or tobacco. Ecstasy, on the other hand, ranked 8th with marijuana and LSD also coming in quite low.
In addition to how a drug harms the body of the user, the scale evaluated other criteria like environmental damage caused by the drug, how the drug is involved in breaking up families and its total economic costs, including health care, social services, and the cost of convictions.
While heroin, crack cocaine and methamphetamines were found to be the deadliest to individuals, wider social effects put alcohol to the top of the list. “Just think about what happens (with alcohol) at every football game,” said study commenter Wim van den Brink, a University of Amsterdam professor of psychiatry and addiction. “Drugs that are legal cause at least as much damage, if not more, than drugs that are illicit.”
The assessment makes sense when you think about it. Alcohol in excess causes damage to almost every organ system in the body, is connected to higher death rates, and is reportedly involved in a higher percentage of crimes than most other drugs. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimate 2.5 million deaths a year from heart disease, liver disease, suicides, road accidents and cancer can be attributed to alcohol. It is also holds the number 3 spot world wide in risk factors for premature death and disability.
Professor David Nutt, chairman of the ISCD and author of the study, noted, “It is intriguing that the two legal drugs assessed — alcohol and tobacco — score in the upper segment of the ranking scale, indicating that legal drugs cause at least as much harm as do illegal substances.” Nutt is former head of the British Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), but was forced to resign when he publicly criticized ministers for increasing penalties for cannabis use, ignoring scientific advice which suggests it is less harmful than alcohol.
Studies of this type need to be taken with a grain of salt since the means of evaluation are necessarily based on a certain amount of arbitrariness. But it does open up the debate over which drugs we generally consider to be OK versus which ones are frowned upon and can even lead to jail time. While alcohol is legal, it scored 72 points on the researcher’s 100 point scale (0 meaning not harmful at all). Yet illegal drugs carrying stiff penalties had much lower scores including ecstasy (9), LSD (7), marijuana (20) or magic mushrooms (5).
What do you think — Is alcohol the most harmful drug?
The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale, Holistic Nutritionist and trained chef, living in Toronto.
I suspect alcohol is more harmful because it’s more condoned — since more people have access to it, more people get trashed and do bad things.
There’s a built-in deterrent to things like crack and heroin (like jail time, as well as family outrage), so perhaps people with addictive personalities or mental health issues or a great deal of anger might gravitate towards alcohol as opposed to other drugs.
Also, I suspect less people would get help because of alcohol’s general acceptance in our culture. I know a couple of lifetime alcoholics who functioned on some level, but still left all kinds of damage in their wake.
So whereas a crack addict would likely be urged into rehab if his or her habit were discovered, a ‘weekend drunk’ might be able to continue binging forever (or until his or her liver gave out).