Health & Wellbeing

A scientific assessment of the harmfulness of the 16 most commonly used drugs

A scientific assessment of the...
View 1 Image

One of the more interesting news items of the last week came from the release of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs’ first piece of research – Drug harms in the UK: a multi-criteria decision analysis. The findings of the committee, based on wide ranging criteria, apply scientific methodology to answering the perpetually vexing question of exactly how much harm certain drugs do to their users and those around them.

The accompanying table summarizes the findings and the full paper is available free on the web, where you’ll see just how complex the equation actually is. Most interesting of all was that without government meddling and industry lobbying, alcohol was rated more harmful than any other drug, while tobacco (the only other taxed legal drug on the list), is more harmful than cannabis.

The Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs was set up after British Home Secretary Alan Johnson sacked Professor Nutt from his role as the head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in 2009. ACMD is the UK's official drugs advisory body and Johnson sacked Professor Nutt for saying cannabis was less harmful than alcohol.

The Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs was founded to investigate and review the scientific evidence relating to drugs, free from political concerns.

Nutt is not pro- or anti-anything – he is a scientist and science is our only true friend when it comes to making informed decisions on any subject, but particularly about the effects of one of mankind's greatest problems and its effects on society. The Committee’s aim is to provide accessible information on drugs, drug harms, benefits, regulation, education, prevention, treatment and recovery.

According to the report, which is available free (once you have registered at the Lancet), the most harmful drugs to users are crack cocaine (37), heroin (34) and metamfetamine (32), whereas the most harmful drugs to others are alcohol (46), heroin (21) and crack cocaine (17). When the two-part scores were combined, alcohol was the most harmful drug by a huge margin, followed by heroin and crack cocaine.

Professor David Nutt's has just launched a new blog. This is recommended reading for anyone with an open mind to finding a better way.

What a pile of crap. Of course I can twist and turn any statistics in a way that it produces an outcome that I want. I cant see any 13 year olds prostituting themselves for alcohol, but plenty doing the same for heroin. Of course that spreads HIV (which I am sure was discarded as a means to hurt others). I am also wondering whether the crimes commited to get the money for a certain drug were rated in \"harms others\"... Whatever, just another stupid study with no connection to reality whatsoever. And people are wondering why scientists get a bad rep. I for my part dont want to be associated with these people.
It would be helpful to know how the number of users of a drug influence the level of harm in the chart published. Ie are the high results for alcohol predominantly due to the number of users? If there are a large number of alcohol related vehicle accidents, this will create more harm to society generally than a small number of \"13 year olds prostituing themselves\"
Facebook User
Dear Skipjack, could we see the methodology, criteria and numbers you used in YOUR study? Or was it tea leaves?
What a huge shame that petrol-sniffing isn\'t on the list - this is a huge problem - it would be awesome to see how it rates: my guess is it would outrank the lot on both counts?
Earl Leonard
I am interested to read the methodology and criteria,e specially in the `harmful to others\' category. A large number of the farm workers with the cocaine industries are indentured (slave) labour... I\'d consider that pretty harmful too. But yeahnah, as a professional musician it doesn\'t surprise me at all that alcohol is rated the most harmful in both categories.
Angelie Baral
By just observing how booze lovers defend alcohol and don\'t seem to imagine any social gathering without it, it has long been obvious as far as I\'m concern that addiction is strong. Now, considering that someone drunk can bring violence into families, loose jobs or not perform well in business, can provoke dramatic road accidents... something which is not the case with - say, tobacco, such consequences on others have a cost for society. This is something which has long been observed by numerous people, especially those not keen on booze who have a fair judgement. I\'m glad that a team of scientist has finally brought a demonstration. I hope it helps health authorities to reassess their priorities: stop pointing your finger constantly at smokers, alcohol should be targeted equally if not more.
It appears that methamphetamine is misspelled as "metamfetamine". [Ed note: That's how the graphic was supplied to us, although it does appear to be an alternate spelling:]
Henry Rody
\"Interpretation: These findings lend support to previous work assessing drug harms, and show how the improved scoring and weighting approach of MCDA increases the differentiation between the most and least harmful drugs. However, the findings correlate poorly with present UK drug classification, which is not based simply on considerations of harm.\" (Quoted from the summary of this report).
Terry King
Back in the 60\'s (Remember or read about then??) I was a Broadcast journalist in New York. This was the time of the first wide public consciousness about drug use. I heard parents say, \"Why would someone take a drug they don\'t need??\" There was little real information and a lot of myth and rumor. Consumer Reports came out with a well-researched, scientifically based book titled \"Licit and Illicit Drugs\". It was a major part of my research into the drug phenomenon and the drug scene on the street. The book was widely condemned by people who \"knew\" things like \"heroin destroys the brain within 6 months\" and \"Marijuana smoking almost always leads to hard drug addiction\". By the time Woodstock got moved from Wallkill to White Lake and really happened (I got the posh accommodations: I slept on the floor in the Press trailer), I was able to identify and talk about the drug reality at that time and place. Again, well-researched hard information will be attacked by the fearmongers and the moralists. You will hear \"by saying \"XXDRUG\" is not terribly harmful you will lead our children into drug addiction\". MY kids heard all the discussion, and got my stories from the street dealers and the really bad stuff that went down, often to nice people. They knew what was what with drugs, and they and my 11 grandchildren have never had a lack of true knowledge about drugs or been seduced by the street/cultural myths about how great they are. The best thing you can do for YOUR kids is to know the truth and the details about \"Licit and Illicit Drugs\".. If you don\'t know the difference between opiates and amphetamines and hallucinogens and their street names, you can\'t help your kids learn about all the good things in the world and the bad things, and which is which. Regards, Terry King ..On the Red Sea at
Stephen Owens
What about all those pharmaceuticals that have a chance for the side effect of \"death\" or other serious health conditions, especially if mixed with other Pharmaceuticals. So many people are addicted to pills. My pastor\'s wife is afraid someone is going to break into her house and steal her pain meds, and has constant freak outs when she is away from her home that someone is breaking it right that second. Pharmacies are on every corner. Include pharmaceuticals in your study.