In 2009, Dr David Nutt, former chair of the UK government’s Drugs Advisory Committee, published a report in which he ranked 20 drugs based upon their negative effects on both users and society. Tobacco and cocaine were described as being equally harmful, while ecstasy and LSD were listed among the least damaging. Most controversially, alcohol was reported to be more dangerous than heroin. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that he may well be right.
In 2016 (the latest UK figures I could verify at time of writing) alcohol-related violent crime accounted for around a quarter of the 1.2 million offences of violence recorded by the police (and, undoubtedly, many more that went unreported) and there were 7,327 alcohol-specific recorded deaths. By comparison, there were 3,744 deaths involving the use of both legal and illegal drugs (of which 69 per cent were misuse deaths), although it must be noted that heroin and alcohol are not equally easy to obtain.
David Nutt was famously sacked after disagreeing with the government’s decision to reclassify cannabis as a restricted drug. He argued that alcohol consumption would drop by 25 per cent if we legalised cannabis and that the cost of policing cannabis use was only £500 million a year compared with the £6-billion-a-year bill for policing the use of alcohol.
And yet the purchase and consumption – and, to some degree, the production – of alcoholic liquor is entirely legal.