Just Asking: Is Alcohol the Most Harmful Drug?

Nov 1, 2010· 2 MIN READ
Following the lead of Wilt Chamberlain, Adam vacated his native Philadelphia for Los Angeles following decades of acclaim and short shorts. He firmly believes that, when it comes to the opportunity for change, we’re on the goal line with bases loaded and no fouls to give. He also finds inspiration in mixed sports metaphors.
This is some very bad stuff. (Photo: Tooga/Getty Images)

Experts from Britain’s Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs are raising Cain with a new study that ranks devious drugs according to the psychological, physical, and social damage they do to their users and society at large.

The study scored 20 drugs over a set of 16 criteria broken up into two categories, then crunched the numbers to crown the worst.

The big winner?


With an overall score of 72 points out of a possible 100, alcohol is the most menacing way to escape sober reality, beating out runners-up smack and crack by nearly 20 points.

TakePart had a long and, er, "joyous" Halloween weekend, so naturally our throbbing heads could scarcely believe what our bloodshot eyes were reading.

Tongues furry and eyes shaded, we had a few questions.

How is it possible that tying one on does more harm than drug war mainstays meth and crack?

When measuring the myriad ills that drugs impose on individuals and society, alcohol, being the most widely available, posed the most comprehensive harm.

According to CNN, sauce damages nearly every internal organ when drunk in excess. It's connected to higher death, murder, and suicide rates, and is involved in a greater percentage of crime than most other drugs, including heroin.

But life goes better with a shot of Beam and a Bud chaser. Did they double-check their math?

The research utilized a method of modeling called multi-criteria decision analysis (MCDA), which weighs conflicting options and variables across complex issues so policymakers can do their decision-making thing. If a lawmaker in Nevada, for example, wants to assess choices and alternatives for disposing of nuclear waste, he or she may employ a little MCDA.

That said, there is no absolute science that says one drug’s far-reaching effects are better or worse than another. The process of ranking the drugs started with an analysis of their dangers crafted from the subjective opinions of experts in the field. Their data was then fed into an MCDA program which spit out the math, along with a fortune and some lucky numbers.

Math schmath. We've seen Trainspotting, and Scots on dope look much worse than Uncle Sid on Schnapps.

The study found that smack, crack, and meth were the most harmful drugs to an individual, whereas hooch, rock, and junk did the worst to society at large. When the two-part scores were combined, alcohol took first place with 72 points, followed by heroin (55) and crack (54).

Trainspotting's Renton may have gone through a messy personal spiral, but if Uncle Sid's anything like the 17.6 million Americans hooked on booze, his taste for butterscotch is running up a larger cost in social services, health care, and stints in prison.

Wasn’t there an expert analysis out last month that found heavy drinkers outlived nondrinkers?

Indeed. A recent report from the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research found that people who stay off the sauce completely die sooner than folks who imbibe heavily. Despite their shorter lives, we're betting nondrinkers still manage more memories.

So why is boozing so good on one scale, and so bad on the other?

For one, the Brit's study was strictly focused on harm, and didn't take into account the apparent health benefits of moderate drinking, nor the larger societal rewards of alcohol and tobacco consumption, like jobs in big industry and tax revenue for state and federal governments.

The journal's report, meanwhile, makes a case for heavy drinkers over abstainers, but claims moderate users are better off than both.

The least harmful drugs, according to the study, were shrooms, LSD, and buprenorphine (a semi-synthetic opioid used to treat opioid addiction). Sobriety wasn't mentioned as a killer, nor was death by boredom.

Where does the study go from here?

Experts hope that policymakers will use the findings to guide decisions on drug laws and treatment programs.

But if that were the case, wouldn't governments reclassify alcohol and tobacco as illicit drugs, and regulate shrooms instead?

Sure they would, if nations were governed by science instead of politics. Until then, the planet's most debilitating drugs can be found in grocery stores in almost every state, just a few aisles away from the baby food.