Saturday, June 30, 2012

Study: The relative (actual) harm of drugs

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It’s obvious that the heavily politicized and increasingly militarized anti-drug effort in the U.S. (and to a lesser extent, elsewhere) has very little to do with the actual threat to individuals and society presented by the illicit substances, themselves. But for all the fear-mongering propaganda, it’s nonetheless evident that some drugs are more dangerous than others. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some sort of side-by-side comparison to see how different types of mind-altering chemicals rank in terms of the actual dangers they pose?

Well, a team of researchers and Britain’s Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs did just that, publishing a new study that summarizes their findings thus:

And here, the effects of society’s irrational approach to different drugs becomes clear. Some of the most dangerous and destructive substances (alcohol, cigarettes) are some of the most widely accepted and commercially available products sold over-the-counter practically on every street corner, whereas some of the more genuinely innocuous drugs with little or no actual harm (marijuana, LSD, even ’shrooms) will get you thrown behind bars for years merely for using them on your own time and dime. It all brings a new level of evidentiary support to the idea that were alcohol introduced just today, it would be universally decried as the greatest danger to society since the Commies – yet because it’s been such an integral part of human history, watch them rage (not that they shouldn’t) if anyone ever tried to take it away from them.

Another key aspect of the report is the combined detailing of physical and social risks associated with using various drugs. As Thomas Kleppestø explains:

In the diagram above both individual and societal factors are considered. It may come to a surprise to many readers that LSD and ecstasy are one of the least dangerous drugs. Notice also that Alcohol is the highest rated dangerous drug and that tobacco is on seventh place just below Cocaine (Both alcohol and tobacco are not even considered a drug by many people, including, sadly, politicians). However, heroin, crack and metamfetamine tops the list for the most dangerous drugs when only individual factors are considered, alcohol then dropping down to a fourth place amongst the most dangerous drugs. So, even when the obvious societal effects due to the widespread use of alcohol are not considered (alcohol rates very high, unsurprisingly, on “family adversities” and “environmental damage”) it still is the fourth most dangerous drug. Yes, that’s right. Alcohol nearly receives the bronze-medal for danger to individuals.

And regarding the discrepancy in reported deaths between legal and illegal drugs:

The many myths and popular beliefs surrounding psychoactive substances and their harms are perpetuated through the popular media. An empirical observation of this phenomenon was provided by Alasdair Forsyth in 2001. He compared the official statistics on drug deaths in Scotland to the drug-deaths reported in the Scottish newspapers. His results are somewhat astounding: a huge proportion of deaths caused by recreational drugs were reported, whereas deaths caused by pharmaceutical drugs were vastly underreported. For example, 26 of 28 deaths were MDMA (ecstasy) was a possible contributor to death was reported, whereas just one in every 256 deaths caused by aspirin and one in 50 deaths caused by paracetamol were reported. This clearly gives a biased representation of the relative harm of drugs, particularly ecstasy, which, as is reported in the diagram above, is not at all that dangerous.

In hindsight, it would seem obvious that the equally (if not more) potent drugs offered in pharmacies or hospitals should logically incur similar health hazards to their illegal counterparts (varying levels of quality notwithstanding). Yet, because they’re accepted as genuine medication, public perception towards them is far more charitable, even though the risks of using them aren’t much better (or may possibly be even worse).

Be sure to read the rest of the report, which also includes more scientific analysis of the supposed evils of that current bugaboo, marijuana.

(via Pharyngula)