Originally appeared at: http://timestranscript.canadaeast.com/opinion/article/1315453 Recent news out of the UK garnered much attention for suggesting that alcohol is the most dangerous drug – three times more harmful than tobacco or cocaine, while LSD and ecstasy were said to be the least harmful. The claim is in a study published in the Lancet journal of medical research and got people around the world talking, if not agreeing. But as is often the case with science stories in the media, many are misinterpreting it and citing it incorrectly. A few things are beyond doubt: 1. Professor David Nutt, lead author, is a reputable scientist. His views merit respect and considered debate. He was, until being fired last year, the chief advisor of the UK government on its drugs policy. He was fired for refusing to be quiet about his research which is out of line with the official UK government approach to recreational drugs. Alcohol is legal; cigarettes are legal but under great pressure; and cocaine, LSD, ecstasy, marijuana and a slew of other drugs are illegal and considered dangerous. The professor was embarrassing the government. 2. Professor Nutt and six other scientists have established the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs in the UK to continue their research. 3. Professor Nutt’s work raises some important questions that have not had full scientific enquiry or public debate. Starting such a debate may ultimately be the most important aspect of his work, which is open to criticism. A gift to politicians who bluntly dismiss the findings, the results are highly subjective. Prof. Nutt acknowledges this but defends the results: they were obtained via a large panel of “experts” highly qualified to make such judgments. That’s good, but it doesn’t lessen legitimate disagreement. 4. Anyone who uses the study to argue any illegal drug is ‘safe,’ hasn’t read carefully. The researchers examined the 20 most common drugs (all illegal except for alcohol and tobacco), and ranked them on 16 criteria, weighing the different criteria against each other. These included harm to the individual, harm to society, cost to communities, harm to the user’s family/friends, crime associated with the drug, addiction, cost to the economy etc. Then they came up with overall rankings. Done well, the exercise can be instructive. But what does it tell us? Professor Nutt says it tells us government priorities on illegal drugs often tackle the least serious problems rather than the worst. He says his rankings give governments a reason to launch all-out campaigns related to alcohol use, as has been done with cigarettes. And he advocates decriminalization (not legalizing). Let’s look more closely, for this isn’t as ‘liberal’ as it may sound. It isn’t ideological at all. Professor Nutt carefully differentiates between harm to users and harm to others. In the case of alcohol, the cumulative weight overall comes in at about 73 on his scale, well above heroin and crack. For alcohol, “harm to others” makes up 45 of those 73 points. Most of the 20 drugs primarily cause harm to the users, not others. But heroin, crack, cocaine, tobacco, amphetamine and marijuana also have a large harm component to others, yet for none does that harm constitute even half the overall ranking. Alcohol is well above half. If we accept the methodology, alcohol is by far the most damaging drug in society. But beware jumping to conclusions! Professor Nutt told the BBC that “Overall, alcohol is the most harmful drug because it’s so widely used.” That is in no way an endorsement for the safety of other drugs! “Crack cocaine is more addictive than alcohol but because alcohol is so widely used there are hundreds of thousands of people who crave alcohol every day, and those people will go to extraordinary lengths to get it,” he said. Put another way, if as many used crack as use alcohol, crack would be far and away the most harmful drug. Equally important is the finding that heroin, crack and crystal meth are the three most dangerous/harmful drugs for users. Excluding alcohol, heroin and crack are the worst for society even without wider usage. The professor’s graphs also show that if much government policy misses the mark, much also hits it. Besides alcohol, the drugs most harmful overall are precisely the ones that we most often hear about efforts to battle. In descending order of harm: heroin, crack, crystal meth, cocaine, tobacco, amphetamine, and cannabis (marijuana). Marijuana is not harmless. The science says otherwise and the professor’s ranking based on that science puts it in eighth place for harm, still in the top 10. What to think? Recall that alcohol is ranked so harmful because it is so widely used. That’s a problem for legalization advocates. If we legalize, as we did alcohol decades ago, will usage increase knock alcohol down in the harm rankings? Probably! Crack is much more addictive. Why would we risk it? If booze is a problem, why create a worse one? The alcohol experience is, forgive the pun, perhaps sobering, but it isn’t necessarily definitive. Not all drugs are equally harmful or have the same effects. More research and debate is needed. And watch Portugal! That nation is in year nine of having decriminalized use and minor possession of all illegal drugs. Users, when caught, are taken to a police station and given orders to attend a “dissuasion commission” hearing. They can be ordered to take treatment if addicted, be fined or be given a warning, but get no criminal record. Traffickers get no leniency, however. This sounds more logical than legalization: hit suppliers; get users help. The experiment bears watching. An insightful article in reponse to the study conducted by professor Davit Nutt indicating that when social factors are taken into consideration, alcohol may be more harmful than heroin or cocaine.