Is Alcohol Really Worse Than Heroin?

A new study in the U.K. gives a push for rethinking drug policy

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Scientist David Nutt lost his job as a U.K. drugs adviser last year. Now he's back with the same argument that got him fired: drugs should be reclassified to show which ones are truly the worst. In a study published in the journal the Lancet this week, his group finds that alcohol is more harmful than either heroin or crack. In fact, alcohol was the most harmful drug that was rated, far ahead of crystal meth, LSD, and mushrooms (for a chart, see the BBC). The reason is alcohol's particularly negative effect not just on users, but also on those surrounding them. The combined negative effect of alcohol on individuals and society simply overwhelms that of more traditionally feared drugs. This is provocative stuff, but does the new ranking make sense?

  • 'Of Course Alcohol Is a Serious Drug,' writes Melissa McEwan at Shakesville. "And, like any other serious drug, it is safe in moderation. But we've got a culture instead built around actively encouraging its use in excess, despite the evidence that its excessive use can have devastating consequences, for oneself and for others." She points out that "auto fatalities ... hunting accidents ... domestic abuse," and rape are all more common where alcohol is present.
  • What the Scientists Are and Aren't Saying  "The point isn't that alcohol should be banned," points out Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boing Boing. Prohibition hasn't worked well in the past, obviously. But "the scientists behind this study say we ought to take alcoholism more seriously and rethink the way we classify and ban drugs across the board. I couldn't agree more."
  • Somewhat Disingenuous  The Spectator's Max Chambers points out that, despite David Nutt's provocative conclusion that "alcohol is more harmful than heroin, crack, powder cocaine and methamphetamine," a 2007 academic paper he penned admitted that, in his own words, "direct comparison of the scores for tobacco and alcohol with those of the other (illegal) drugs is not possible, since the fact that they are legal could affect their harms in various ways, especially through easier availability." What irritates Chambers is that "since 2007, all of Nutt's public forays into this debate appear to have airbrushed this crucial distinction." Policy-wise, that's troublesome.
It stands to reason that alcohol--precisely because of its wide availability--causes the most social harm. ... The problem is not only that Nutt has airbrushed his previous conclusion that comparisons of illegal and legal drugs cannot be made, but as a result, he then goes on to propose a completely new drug classification system in which alcohol, heroin and crack would become Class A drugs.
  • A Different Way of Viewing Harm  "The study," notes New York Magazine's Nitasha Tiku, "is an attempt to provide scientific evidence to support the reclassification of drugs based on the cost to society. Just imagine if Charlie Sheen's latest coke-fueled benders were instead set off by a nice Pinot Grigio."
  • If True, This Makes Me Hardcore  "While you're shooting your very genteel heroin up your arm, I am heroically battling death with every sweet sip of poison I drop down my throat," writes The Awl wit Alex Balk. "Who are the real daredevils? Us, the bold, risk-taking alcoholics. I expect some respect."
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