Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - December 2009
The argument that cannabis is safer than alcohol seems to be a very hazy one
THE FURORE over the sacking of Professor David Nutt as Government chief drugs adviser has overshadowed any serious debate about his very questionable argument that many illegal drugs are in fact less harmful than alcohol.
Those advancing this view invariably cloud the issue by confusing the overall impact on society with the effect on individuals. Obviously, given the prevalence of alcohol in society, it is perhaps not surprising that more people in total experience harmful effects, and nobody is denying that, if consumed to excess, alcohol does you no good. But is it true that it is more dangerous on a proportionate basis? I really don’t think so. Indeed, when interviewed on the radio, Nutt refused to be drawn on whether the harm caused by ecstasy, proportionate to the number of users and the frequency of use, was less or more than that caused by alcohol, and indeed seemed to waffle and prevaricate on the issue.
Many people drink alcohol as much (if not more) for the taste as for the effect. I’m not aware that you can say that for any other drug. And, more importantly, alcohol can be consumed regularly in moderation throughout an adult lifetime without any adverse health effects, and even with some small benefits. Can that really be said for cannabis, ecstasy, LSD or cocaine? Many other distinguished scientists have questioned Nutt’s stance on this, for example Professor Robin Murray of King’s College, London, pointing out that regular cannabis use, even at a very “moderate” level, has been proved to impair memory.
Professor Nutt also said that “parents should be aware that the drug that is by far the most likely to harm their children is alcohol”. Across the whole of society, that may be true, but no drug can harm you unless you actually use it. Obviously parents don’t want their teenage offspring either drunk on Diamond White or stoned on skunk, but on an individual basis I’m sure the vast majority would prefer them to have a glass or two of wine or beer rather than a daily joint.
You would not believe from the media that alcohol consumption was falling rapidly
IF YOU WERE to believe the media, Britain is in the grip of an unprecedented alcohol crisis, with consumption rocketing upwards to record levels. However, when you look at the facts, they tell an entirely different story. Despite the introduction of “24-hour drinking”, average consumption has been falling steadily for the past five years, and indeed at present is now dropping at the fastest rate since the late 1940s.
This does not seem to tally with reports that drink-related liver disease and hospital admissions with a link to alcohol abuse are both rising, and in some town and city centres there is a continuing high level of alcohol-related disorder. It is often argued by anti-drink campaigners that reducing the overall level of consumption through higher taxation and other curbs will bring about a proportional reduction in social and medical problems. However, it is clear this is not happening in the UK, and it seems that all the adverse propaganda dissuades responsible people from even moderate drinking, while the irresponsible continue undeterred.
Surely this suggests that, rather than hitting all drinkers with a big stick, we need a much more targeted approach to alcohol problems that leaves the sensible majority alone.