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Is alcohol the most harmful drug?

Written by Science, Science & Tech

In legal terms, there is certainly a stigma attached to drug use, whereas alcohol consumption seems to be subject to very little in the way of limitation. Given the findings of the 2010 study conducted by Professor David Nutt, amongst others, which suggested that alcohol is much more harmful than the likes of LSD and ecstasy, a change in the laws and classifications surrounding these respective substances might be apt.

Alcohol undoubtedly has a wide-ranging social impact, something that is reflected by the figures of an NHS survey undertaken between 2016-2017. Figures from this survey state that 1.1 million hospital admissions across this period were either primarily caused by alcohol consumption or linked to alcohol with a secondary diagnosis, a startling amount that is sure to place the NHS under a significant yet avoidable financial burden.

Additionally, when looking at the correlation between alcohol and violent crime, the ONS reported that there were 464,000 incidents of violent crime in England and Wales where the victim believed their offender was under the influence of alcohol. This amounts to a shocking 40% of all violent crimes, something which emphasises just how damaging alcohol can be in terms of catalysing crime.

In spite of the statistics that exemplify the financial and social ramifications of alcohol consumption, alcohol remains readily accessible and available. In this sense, a change in laws might be necessary in order to alter the worrying aforementioned figures. Stricter measures to deter shopkeepers from selling alcohol to those whom they believe to be purchasing alcohol for underage drinkers, for example, may be effective. Almost 40% of underage drinkers have their alcohol bought for them by someone else, according an SDD survey of 11-15-year old, and if restrictions concerning this issue were modified, issues surrounding alcoholism both in youth and later life may become less prevalent.

Of course, alcohol consumption is seen as something of a rite of passage for young children, and excessive consumption is often normalised amongst university students. In order to ensure these figures do not become even more worrying, a change in law and classification needs to be mirrored by a change in culture and attitude as well.

Drug related admissions to hospitals between 2015-16, by contrast, were much less comprehensive. There were 7,545 hospital admissions with a primary diagnosis of drug-related mental health and behavioural disorders, as well as 14,053 hospital admissions relating to poisoning by means of illicit drugs. A total of 21,598 admissions, therefore, emphasises that alcohol presents a much more pressing issue for those attempting to keep a beleaguered NHS afloat.

Despite drugs such as LSD and Ecstasy presenting much less of a social issue than alcohol, possession of LSD and Ecstasy, even if only intending to use it personally, can result in up to 7 years in prison as well as an unlimited fine. If caught carrying a larger amount of drugs, no matter whether one’s intention was to share with friends or deal to the public, the police can charge an individual with intent to supply. Such a charge, if relating to LSD and Ecstasy, has a maximum punishment of life in prison, and again an unlimited fine.

The laws surrounding these substances, it seems, are somewhat excessive in relation to how great an impact such drugs have both financially and socially. There is a significant social and legal stigma attached to LSD and ecstasy, and whereas alcohol misuse should be responded to with an increased severity, a loosening of restrictions on personal drug use may be appropriate.

An example of a slight measure of decriminalisation having a positive effect can be found when looking at music festivals. At many festivals across the country, an organisation called The Loop runs drug tests, taking a small sample of any drugs taken to the tent by festival-goers. They then tell potential users exactly what they were about to put into their body, and afterwards destroy the samples given to them. Here, an effort to decriminalise personal drug use, even if in a very specific environment, makes the use of such substances infinitely safer. Of course, the possibility of establishing such measures more widely is incredibly slim, but this does highlight that an alteration of the restrictions on drug use can be favourable. As such, David Nutt’s assertion that the restrictions regarding drugs and alcohol ought to be amended might not be as radical as it first seems. Even if the implementation of such changes may be difficult, there is enough evidence to suggest that changes would ensure that alcohol, LSD and Ecstasy are legally treated in a manner corresponding to their actual impact on the NHS and society at large.

Last modified: 24th February 2019

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