Pharyngula

We do not have a rational drug policy. There are potent and dangerous drugs that are socially accepted because hey, we’ve always drunk alcohol and smoked cigarettes, while there are milder, far less dangerous drugs that are damned because they’re new and unfamiliar. And so we throw people in prison for long jail terms if they are caught with some marijuana, while people can go out every weekend and drink themselves into an abusive, obnoxious state, and we just tell them they’re cool.

It is possible to take an objective look at the effects of various drugs on individuals and society, and ask “where’s the harm?” Here’s an example, the dangers of an array of drugs characterized and ranked.

There’s lots of small print there, so you may have to click to embiggen, but I can tell you what the extremes are: alcohol is the worst, and psychoactive mushrooms are the least. Heroin and meth are bad, LSD and Ecstasy are among the least dangerous.

And there are good biological reasons for this ranking.

The particular type of neurotransmitters that a drug affects in the brain has a huge impact on the harms the drug can contribute to. A major similarity between the drugs that tops the list above is that these drugs, in addition to other areas in the brain (click here for a discussion), directly affect the dopaminergic “reward system” in the midbrain. This area has been shaped and “designed” by millions of years of natural selection in mammals to reward for adaptive behavior such as sex and the intake of nutritious food. When they are artificially stimulated by drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine they have adverse consequences for addiction and health (that is the reason why drugs such as nicotine and heroin have the characteristic addictive effects). Drugs at the bottom of the list, such as MDMA (ecstasy), mushrooms and LSD stimulate mainly serotonergic neurons (several places in the brain), and does not directly stimulate the mesolimbic reward systems (which is why they are not addictive).

Wouldn’t it be interesting if we had laws and penalties that were actually informed by science, rather than fear and naivete?

I will add, though, that there’s more to this than just biology: there are the sciences of sociology and pyschology that have to be taken into account. We’ve done the experiment of trying to criminalize alcohol in the same way we do heroin; it didn’t work.

Comments

  1. #1 The Bobs
    PNW
    June 30, 2012

    Mushrooms changed my life and made me a better person. I’m happier, healthier and more functional. They rid me of my lifelong battle with depression by showing me it’s origin.

  2. #2 guest
    June 30, 2012

    Can someone tell me how this index is calculated? Could it be that alcohol and cocaine are worse in this chart because they are used more? I definitely support legalization of non-detrimental drugs but statistics can be (and are) tweaked to make a point.

  3. #3 claygooding
    Texas
    June 30, 2012

    The war on drugs has grown so huge that the budget is one of the largest in our federal government and has tentacles reaching into nearly every other federal bureaucracy with funding,,,therefore making them a self feeding cancer on our country’s tax dollars,,while congress argues about which social programs to reduce spending on,,the ONDCP budget gets a 9 billion dollar increase.

    And there are more drugs at cheaper prices,,,,some drug prohibition,,with the ATF selling guns to the cartels and the DEA laundering the money for them,,how can they lose?

  4. #4 Alex Van de Sande
    Ro de janeiro
    June 30, 2012

    While I agree that the war on drugs isn’t based on science I find it hard to believe that alcohol is worse than crack, methane cocaine. What this “harm score” based on? Does it take inconsideration the popularity of the drug?

  5. #5 Sara
    Colorado - where we are going to pass 64 this November!
    June 30, 2012

    I disagree with cannabis being where it is. No deaths from cannabis, no adverse health issues, natural, nonaddictive, etc.. and would argue that it is, in actuality, cannabis is the safest. Ever heard of a bad trip from cannabis that caused someone to jump off a roof? Didn’t think so.
    And, shrooms & LSD? That’s overkill for a party! One or the other. Offer some hash oil tootsie rolls instead!

  6. #6 thirteendollabill
    a police state called The land Of The Free
    June 30, 2012

    Mmmmm… Marijuana seed first appears in grave sites in Thailand 10,000 years ago. Within a 1000 years, ie. < 9000 before the present, it's found in grave sites from the tip of Africa to the Celt world and all of Siberia – the entire Old World. I don't believe alcohol has such a long and broad history of use.

  7. #7 Josh Scholar
    San Francisco
    June 30, 2012

    One point that’s missed is that some drugs are nearly poisonous to a certain subgroup of the population.

    So mushrooms and cannabis and some other psychedelics are anything but safe to borderline (and not so borderline) schizophrenics, they will cause breaks, do permanent damage and utterly ruin lives. While, oddly, being safe for other people.

    The same people should stay away from stimulants too. I knew of a person who would become delusional when she took her epinephrine inhaler for asthma.

    You may not know that a drug is dangerous for you until too late though.

    It’s irresponsible for us to treat drugs as if the danger from each drug is the same for each person. And some of those “safe” drugs really are extremely dangerous, even in small amounts to the wrong person.

  8. #8 Shiny
    June 30, 2012

    How is this “score” determined? Are all of these normalized by frequency of use versus frequency of documented adverse effects?

  9. #9 Alenushka
    June 30, 2012

    It is true of many things. I did not know Penicilin or Erythromycin was dangerous for me until I took them. Should these antibiotics be banned?

  10. #10 Pierce R. Butler
    June 30, 2012

    I assume by “mushrooms” they mean members of the psilocybin genus; others (e.g., Amanita muscaria) would probably land further to the left on that scale.

    And where did they get that spelling of “amfetamine”?

  11. #11 lyle
    June 30, 2012

    We tried banning alcohol from 1919 to 1933 and it was best described as a smash flop. In fact Chicago was best described as a model for Mexico today. We do have the great experiment to try to fix human behavior, and it flopped very badly. Why we don’t take the hint and make drug possession in any amount a fine only offense, but operating machinery under the influence similar to that for booze today, is unclear.

  12. #12 John Salerno
    June 30, 2012

    It could be that alcohol is #1 because it is legal, and thus easily available and widely consumed. Granted, heroin is #2 and it’s certainly not legal.

  13. #13 malcolm kyle
    In a field
    June 30, 2012

    Prohibition’s underlying ideology is based wholly on fear, hate, envy, and greed – leading universally and invariably to abject failure, economic collapse, sickness and war.

    Ending prohibition would greatly reduce, even almost eliminate, the market in illegal narcotics, cause a reduction in the number of users and addicts, greatly curtail drug related illness and deaths, reduce societal harm from problematic abusers, and bring about an enormous reduction in the presence and influence of organized crime. The people who use drugs are our own children, our brothers, our sisters, our parents and our neighbors. By allowing all adults safe and controlled legal access to psychoactive substances, we will not only greatly reduce the dangers for both them and ourselves but also greatly minimize the possibility of ‘peer-initiation’ and sales to minors.

    Never have so many been harmed and impoverished by so few, so quickly. Prohibition is not just an extremely expensive accident. Like any harmful and completely ineffective policy, it was connived and implemented by immoral, malicious, fools. It cannot be ended soon enough.

    After many decades of drug-war-dystopia, don’t we all deserve a healthy, safe and prosperous future?

    Just say no to prohibition-insanity, prohibition-corruption, prohibition-violence and prohibition-terrorism!

  14. #14 Spoony Quine
    Rainy Northwest
    June 30, 2012

    How is methamphetamine (why is it spelled with an f?) ranked lower? I’ve seen what it does to people and have lived with meth heads. Is it that most people don’t TRY it, or is it that most people don’t get ADDICTED because they’re usually smart enough not to go that route.

  15. #15 Jung Choi (@jung_gt)
    June 30, 2012

    Is the “overall harm done” normalized for the number of users or the amount of drug consumed per capita, or does it also reflect the fact that alcohol is the most widely used sustance on this list?

  16. #16 Stephen1947
    June 30, 2012

    Has anyone run any models on what might happen with some of those negative characteristics if proscription of the drug was not a factor? I’m thinking particularly of “international damage, economic cost, and community.”

  17. #17 scatterblaster
    Fla.
    July 1, 2012

    I would disagree with any “harmlessness ” attributed to LSD .The long term psychiatric effects are unpredictable and run the scale from none to permanent psychosis

  18. #18 fullerenedream
    July 1, 2012

    I love the idea here, but I’m very skeptical of their results. Ketamine is NOT safer than pot. You can overdose on ketamine, whereas it’s basically impossible to OD on pot. I realize there are other factors, but how can possibility of overdose not be weighted heavily?

    Also, does anyone know what they mean by butane here? Do they mean huffing gas? Because I don’t see how that could possibly be safer than pot.

  19. #19 correctionofficer
    July 1, 2012

    embiggen?

  20. #20 Iron Temple
    Eugene, ORE
    July 1, 2012

    I’d like to add another category where drugs do damage, and that is “political instability.” I’m talking about the Mexican drug cartels and sales of heroin funding Taliban operations. The U.S.-Mexican border area has become increasingly hazardous and unstable because of the cartels and, well, the Taliban need no introduction. Personally, I view anyone that sells and/or takes heroin as, literally, a traitor.

  21. #21 symball
    UK
    July 1, 2012

    lets face it- those laws don’t work very well on heroin either

  22. #22 Rodney L. Glasspoole, JD
    Angelica, NY
    July 1, 2012

    Much of the real harm to society is not from the illegal drug use, but the very fact it is made illegal. Look at Portugal’s decriminalization. Last time I saw a report they had not real negative consequences and a whole lot of good ones. What out drug laws are really is a form of class control. Hence the disproportionate use against brown people, even though their drug use is no higher than that of whites. If you looked at the whites who are jailed, you would find, I think, that they too are from the working and under classes.

  23. #23 chris y
    July 1, 2012

    I was always led to understand that modern drugs “policy” derives not so much from fear and naivety as from imperial greed. In the late 19th century, British business interests in Egypt decided that cannabis, which at that point figured largely in the pharmacopeias of most western nations for all kinds of ills, caused the local labour force to be insufficiently productive, because they were basically stoned all the time.

    As a result of their lobbying the stuff was eventually banned throughout the British empire, and British pressure led the Americans to follow suit. At the time white men, who mainly drank alcohol, and who were the only people who mattered to the lawmakers, were minimally inconvenienced, although they could no longer buy marijuana “anti-bronchitic” cigarettes over the counter as heretofore, but no doubt the native labour force in the cannabis using parts of the empire were able to work much harder.

  24. #24 Brent
    Canada
    July 1, 2012

    I think current attitudes towards drugs can be explained by religion; any spiritual experience that isn’t praying will be demonized.

  25. #25 Progressive-voice
    Seattle, WA
    July 2, 2012

    To be fair, the drugs other than tobacco and alcohol are tightly controlled which reduces their potential for abuse by limiting availability and increasing cost. If people could just go to the cocaine bar and do fat lines I bet there would be a lot more people with heart conditions and acting recklessly. Some drugs like LSD and Psilocybin may have psychiatric use and THC is unquestionably miss-categorized but that does not mean that they should be available for recreational use.

  26. #26 Prohibition Has Failed
    July 2, 2012

    PZ Myers :
    “Wouldn’t it be interesting if we had laws and penalties that were actually informed by science, rather than fear and naivete?”
    Progressive-voice :
    “I bet there would be a lot more people …”

    Part of the point of this blog is that opinions and beliefs should be actively rejected in favor of conclusions based on data.

    Availability has little to do with a decision to use a drug. Many adults do not use alcohol. Most do not use tobacco. South Americans would not be shipping cocaine north if they could sell it locally.

    Progressive-voice:
    “does not mean that they should be available for recreational use”
    The most basic right I know is the right of an individual to be left alone. A society is not free or just without this right. A person who uses drugs does something to themselves. A criminal does something to someone else. The criminalization of drug use is a category mistake and a foundational error. Allowing people to do what they want with their body is a conservative idea, a libertarian idea, and a progressive idea.

    Before asking what should be legalized, or what the universal definition of recreation should be, it should be asked whether Prohibition has accomplished anything. Based on 40 years of data, the answer is no. Every dealer that has ever been arrested has been immediately replaced. Every drug is available in every urban area. No one ever speaks of corners turned or milestones achieved in this war because there never have been any. No one ever speaks of an exit strategy for this war because there is no theoretical basis for one.

    To not use drugs a person needs education, guidance and counseling. Law Enforcement does not do these things. That doing something is bad idea does not mean it should be criminalized. Healthy individuals are the responsibility of parents, teachers, and leaders. Turning this responsibility over to Law Enforcement is a shirking of responsibility that has resulted in failure and will always result in failure because Law Enforcement is no way equipped to accomplish this goal.

  27. #27 Bizarro
    July 2, 2012

    I think a big part of the reason alcohol prohibition failed is because alcohol is the easiest drug to manufacture.

  28. #28 Jon Britton
    Birmingham UK
    July 2, 2012

    What I don’t understand is how you can compare a very widely consider drug like alcohol to something like ecstasy, which very few people use. How would this graph look is the vast majority of people took ecstasy on a frequent basis?

  29. #29 Ian Derthal
    Jordanstown
    July 2, 2012

    I’d still be more upset if any of my children were on LSD rather than cigarrettes or alcohol.

    Still, ask Whitney Houston.

  30. #30 Omar K.R.
    Duluth, MN
    July 2, 2012

    I have to agree with Jon on this, and feel that the only way to accurately gauge which substance causes more harm is to do a trial run and legalize them all for regulated use for a period of no less than 10 years.

    In my personal experience with drugs and the people who use them, the information presented above rings fairly true. The major risk with a psychedelic substance like LSD is a mental impairment. Someone who uses methamphetamine regularly will almost definitely lose many relationships in their lives, and run serious risk of permanent damage to their bodies if they are heavy tweekers.

    Tobacco of course breeds a high amount of dependency and contains many carcinogens, and alcohol deserves it’s position at the top. I’ve known many drug users, for extended periods of time in my life and I’ve seen alcohol cause more accidents to self, property, and others; I’ve seen more families torn apart by it than I’ve ever seen damaged by the use of LSD, mushrooms, cannabis, or ecstasy; these drugs all come with their own set of potentially harmful effects direct and indirect, but none even remotely meet up to the abuse of alcohol that I’ve seen all over my town, my state, my country.

    The argument could be made, as Jon stated, that more issues occur with alcohol than other drugs due to the fact that alcohol is easily procured, and legally on top. This I believe, if I’m not mistaken, has been shown a few times to not be the case; the legality of a drug doesn’t have much to do with the harm it causes (except, say, in terms of crime- where having it illegal in turn tends to cause more crime, as seen with heroin, crack cocaine, and other highly physically addictive illicit drugs)- I’m sure we’ve all heard about Portugal, how they decriminalized all drugs over a decade ago, now. There was no significant sustained rise in the use of any drug whatsoever, if I remember correctly; not only that, but a policy of treatment instead of punishment has actually caused the nation to see a decrease in the number of the addicts considered problematic (those who repeatedly use “hard” or intravenous drugs) of something like fifty percent.

    Let me say, I’m sure if you’ve spoken to anyone who is for decriminalization you have heard of Portugal, perhaps ad nauseum, and I understand that just because it worked there by no means guarantees it will work in the United States or any other nation- but we cannot know until we decide to make a radical change away from a system of law which punishes people for consensual crimes, which is clearly not working to curtail the issue of addiction and the social, health, and economic impact it has on people as individuals and as families or communities. People should not be going to prison for consensual crimes; they should have the right to decide what to put in their bodies in the privacy of their own homes. This is and always has been an issue of civil liberties, primarily.

  31. #31 Dale
    Norway
    July 2, 2012

    @Jon WOULD a vast majority ever take ecstasy on a frequent basis? The drug isn’t well suited for everyday use.

  32. #32 Brenneman A
    July 2, 2012

    With respect to the “if more people did it…” question above, it’s important to note that this graph isn’t a recoding of actual events: The higher graphs don’t mean more arrests or deaths have literally occurred.

    From the paper this references:
    “Methods:
    Members of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, including two invited specialists, met in a 1-day interactive workshop to score 20 drugs on 16 criteria: nine related to the harms that a drug produces in the individual and seven to the harms to others. Drugs were scored out of 100 points, and the criteria were weighted to indicate their relative importance.”

  33. #33 Nick barister
    July 2, 2012

    @John Britton
    It’s statistics, more people won’t add to more anything………………

  34. #34 Guilherme
    Brazil
    July 2, 2012

    @Nick barister

    Are you crazy man? In statistics the bigger the amostral size, the closer you get to the truth.

  35. #35 Karl
    Montpellier, France
    July 2, 2012

    Can´t you see that out of these statistics, you can draw any conclusions you want ? the harm score isn´t a reliable indicator. The graph means nothing. You can lengthen the colored bands as you wish, how the hell may one compare the drug-specific impairements and the economic effects ??? This study is bullshit.

  36. #36 Jeff Leggett
    Georgia,
    July 2, 2012

    I don’t think any of is are OK with people who “drink themselves into an abusive, obnoxious state, and we just tell them they’re cool.”??!! What an absurd statement, anyone with an excessive drinking problem is urged to get help by friends,family etc.

    Your data is thrown off by the fact that alcohol, for better or worse, is legal, and the others aren’t. Apples to Oranges. We tried outlawing it, and that didn’t work out so well either

  37. #37 kinks
    Columbus, Ohio
    July 2, 2012

    No drug is good for everyday use…except weed maybe but you got to get your shit done first. Pyschadelic drugs are awesome and are greatly misunderstood by just about everyone who hasnt tried them.

  38. #38 Doom
    montreal canada
    July 2, 2012

    Kinks, what if I can get my shit done while I’m high?

  39. #39 Nick
    LA
    July 2, 2012

    Does anyone else think it’s strange and inaccurate that there is a ‘drug-related mortality’ section in the cannabis column?

  40. #40 Jason
    Australia
    July 3, 2012

    @Nick: if you want an example of cannabis-related mortality – how about driving while stoned? Poor attention or drowsiness not a good mix with heavy machinery.

    MDMA or mushrooms as regular party fodder will lead to some messed up situations. But used carefully as tools for insight and catalysts for change, they can do much more than the moral guardians of our society are prepared to concede is possible.

    To them, self change and insight should come from surrender to the higher power of their choice, or barring that, suffering, penitence, and hard work. Anything else would be cheating.

  41. #41 darth_borehd
    USA
    July 3, 2012

    I dispute the statement that prohibition didn’t work. Violent crime rates before and after prohibition did not radically change. Newspapers did a lot to promote the rise of organized crime, but little evidence exists that prohibition greatly affected it one way or another.

    However, drunk driving and alcohol-related diseases decreased by 50%. So in that sense, prohibition was a success.

  42. #42 Rebecca Morgan
    Australia
    July 4, 2012

    Never going to happen, the assumed political implications are going to put a kibosh on any rational discussion about drug legislation.

  43. #43 jrkrideau
    July 5, 2012

    Well, I think I’d nominate that chart for the “Worst chart of the year ” award. Just because one can make a barchart like tha does not mean that one should.

    On the other hand, of course the drug laws are irrational. Columbia reduced to chaos for years and Mexico in something close to a civil war because the USA is losing a “War on Drugs”?

    Personally I’ve suggested that the marajuana growers here in Canada should have some kind of an award for entreprenerialism and for their contribution to the balance of payments.

    Also if we could harness the CDN grow-ops personnel’s level of hydroponics knowledge and skills we would be doing wonders for world hunger.

  44. #44 JACQUELINE STONE
    July 6, 2012

    You’ve left out psychosis/schizophrenia triggered by marihuana in those genetically vulnerable. Mental impairment doesn’t quite cover it…..

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    http://www.lvoutleten.com
    July 9, 2012

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    http://www.bagmallus.com
    July 10, 2012

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  47. #47 Caitlin
    July 10, 2012

    Are the statistics being used here adjusted for prevalence of use?

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