Can 210,000 British Drug Deaths Be Prevented?

David Nutt Ranking of Drugs By Harm
Professor David Nutt's ranking of drugs by harm (image:Economist.com)

Regulation is often a dirty word, especially to the political right; but one set of regulations is generally accepted across the political spectrum: those that prevent monopolies from forming. An unfortunate fact about markets is that they tend to become less competitive over time. The winners purchase the rest, or drive them out of business, and without regulation, monopolies or cartels are virtually inevitable. The UK, EU and US all have anti-trust laws aimed at maintaining at least some competition within markets, and by-and-large, they work.

I can only think of one industry that is not only not subject to anti-trust legislation, but where governments actively weigh in to support one player above all the competitors: the recreational drugs business. Getting drunk, stoned, high or generally off-your-tits is one thing that almost all human societies have in common. Escaping daily reality, using one substance or another, is apparently one of the most universally human of all activities. Once we have food, water, shelter and sex sorted it seems that twisting reality is our next priority.

Different regions of the world have discovered their own substances of choice, and these have become tightly woven into human cultures and religions over the course of millennia. The Hebrews, probably including Jesus, used cannabis “anointing oil” for religious ceremonies. Asia has used cannabis and opium since pre-history. Native Americans had access to coca and most of the world’s hallucinogens; and of course, Europe found a special love for its drugs of choice, alcohol and caffeine, and exported these tastes to North America and other regions. There are many other drugs that have found a place in one culture or another.

As European empires began the process we now call globalisation, our different cultures clashed, and so did our drug habits. Europeans, in their wisdom, decided that their drugs were superior to those of other cultures, and in their fear of substances they didn’t understand, began to attack foreign drugs and the cultures surrounding them. The first drug to be outlawed in modern times was cannabis, banned by the British Empire in Egypt. Later, American puritans launched war on all drugs, and successfully banned several; but soon alcohol, the white man’s drug of choice was legalised again, while the cannabis and cocaine favoured by blacks, Latinos and Chinese remained banned. Popular new lab-created drugs, invented in more recent times, have been banned as they gained popularity; LSD, MDMA and Mephedrone being among the most popular of these.

Dozens of drugs are now banned in the UK, with little or no justification; three popular choices remain legal: alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. In a 2010 study by the then-government drugs specialist, Professor David Nutt, twenty popular drugs (legal and illegal) were ranked in order of harm. Alcohol came at the top, with Heroin and Crack Cocaine in second and third place. Tobacco came sixth. See the chart above for the full list.

A recent study by British doctors’ organisations predicted that up to 210,000 people would die from alcohol use in the next 20 years. The predictable response from the moronic media and politicians was a call for yet more alcohol controls. Yet alcohol is already a very well regulated substance, from production to retail. What the media and politicians failed to mention was that by making alcohol the government-approved recreational drug of choice, and leaving other drugs in the hands of criminals, our leaders have created us this problem.

The big lie is this: alcohol deaths are not treated as drug deaths – they are reported separately. If, instead of reporting 10,000 or so alcohol deaths in a year, the media said: “… around 11,000 recreational drug deaths, of which alcohol comprised around 90%…”, the nature of the problem becomes clearer. Alcohol is by far the most dangerous drug on the street.

There is an obvious need for a free (but sensibly regulated) market in recreational drugs; could it really be imagined that, faced with a selection of 10 or 20 legal drugs, most people would continue to choose the most dangerous of them all? Of course not – and this is why the alcohol industry is so desperate to keep its competitors outlawed. This is why a single Ecstacy-linked death can make headlines in the big business-friendly media, while a typical week in the UK brings well over 100 unreported alcohol deaths.

The legalisation, regulation and taxation of drugs would need to be done with care and under expert guidance – in other words by taking advice from the very experts the government repeatedly ignores. While the details are complex, the approach is potentially very simple: for example, as a first step, the authorities could legalise every drug scoring under 30 on Professor Nutt’s scale (note: alcohol scores over 70). This means legalising all shown on the chart, with the exception of heroin, crack and methamphetamine. Those dangerous drugs already legal would remain legal (we already know how dangerous a ban on alcohol would be, by looking at America’s failed experiment with prohibition).

Possession of any substance should not be a criminal offence – these laws serve only as an excuse for police and judiciary to harass and criminalise those sections of society they choose. The supply needs to be regulated from end to end. Drug addiction is best treated as a medical, not a criminal, problem. And most important, the public needs honest education. Many die from using drugs today, not because the substances are inherently dangerous, but because the government, criminally, refuses to provide information on safe usage, and continues to allow criminals to sell untested, unregulated substances to millions of users.

We don’t have to let 210,000 British people die unnecessarily – it’s a choice, and those leaders who make that choice should be held accountable for the deaths. People who have a free choice of drugs carry full responsibility for their own health and wellbeing. But those who are damaged by alcohol can, at least in part, blame the government for attacking alternative, safer, substances.