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Alcohol 'nearly as harmful as heroin'

Britain’s system of classifying dangerous drugs is arbitrary and unscientific and should be changed to include alcohol and tobacco,which are more dangerous than many of the drugs that are presently listed.

These are the conclusions of a team of leading scientists whose report ranking a range of drugs according to their potential for causing harm appeared in the medical journal, The Lancet. The report ranks alcohol as the fifth most dangerous drug of the twenty assessed, behind heroin and cocaine but as significantly more dangerous than cannabis, LSD or ecstasy.

The present drug classification under the Misuse of Drugs Act segregates drugs into three classes, A, B and C that are intended to indicate the dangers of each drug, class A drugs supposedly being the most dangerous and Class C the least.

The authors of the new report, including Professor Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council and Professor David Nutt of the Psychopharmacology Unit, University of Bristol, invited independent groups of experts to assess the harmfulness of drugs on the basis of a rating scale taking into account physical harm, dependence and social harm.

The main result of the investigation was the poor correlation between the rating of harm and the drug’s class according to the Misuse of Drugs Act. Drugs such as LSD and Ecstasy, both Class A, were ranked as less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco, neither of which classified under the Act.

The authors concluded that the results of their study raise important questions about the validity of the current drug classification system, in particular that the exclusion of alcohol and tobacco from the classification has no real scientific rationale. The fact that the two most widely used legal drugs lie in the upper half of the ranking of harm is surely, they say, important information that should be taken into account in public debate on illegal drug use.

David Nutt, Leslie A King, William Salisbury and Colin Blakemore:
Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse. The Lancet.Vol.369. March 24 2007