Vox.com posted an article last week citing Center for Disease Control and Prevention data for the three most deadly drugs in the United States for the year 2011. Surprisingly, the three deadliest drugs in the United States for 2011 were tobacco, alcohol and prescription painkillers. Tobacco was responsible for 480,000 deaths, alcohol for 26,654 deaths and prescription painkillers for 16,917 deaths.
Each of these drugs is legal for recreational use in the United States, whereas a far less dangerous drug such as marijuana, for example, despite being responsible for zero direct deaths at all in 2011, according to the CDC, has so far been legalized for recreation in only four states and is the subject of intense political debate.
The effort to legalize marijuana in several states has brought the War on Drugs under further scrutiny, with the main question being whether the decades-long War on Drugs is succeeding. The short answer is “no.” Vox.com also has an informative piece over the War on Drugs.
While marijuana has been getting most of the media attention lately, it is not the only illegal drug that is far less dangerous than the three most deadly, legal drugs in the United States.
A study posted in 2010 in the UK medical journal The Lancet scored 20 drugs on a scale of 0 to 100 based on 16 criteria measuring the harm each drug caused to individuals and the harm each drug caused to others.
The model assessed harm using the following criteria:
- Drug-specific mortality
- Drug-related mortality
- Drug-specific damage
- Drug-related damage
- Drug-specific impairment of mental functioning
- Drug-related impairment of mental functioning
- Loss of tangibles
- Loss of relationships
- Environmental damage
- Family adversities
- International damage
- Economic cost
(See study for further details about each criterion.)
Alcohol topped the list, with a harm score of 72 out of 100. Heroine, with a harm score of 55, and crack cocaine, with a harm score of 54, ranked second and third place, respectively. Club drugs such as ecstasy (MDMA), LSD and mushrooms didn’t even score above the single digits and ranked at the bottom of the list.
The results are interesting given that current drug policy in the US doesn’t seem to be concordant with the data. Unfortunately, there are limitations to the available data. It is difficult for the government, or anyone for that matter, to closely monitor illicit activity. So, it is likely any attempt to fully capture the negative impact of illicit substances falls short and thus these figures are underrepresented.
Another limitation to the data is that while tobacco, alcohol and prescription painkillers are legal, the other drugs are not. It is difficult to determine how the illicit substances would rank were they instead legal. In The Lancet study, for example, legalization of the illegal drugs would mean increased accessibility to them, which would likely increase their harm scores. There is no way of knowing by exactly how much harm scores would increase with the legalization of these drugs. Data regarding marijuana consumption before and after legalization, were it to serve as evidence, has been mixed.
Also, the study published in The Lancet is based on the population of the UK. However, given the similarities of the UK and the US, there is no reason to believe the results would be drastically different if based on the US population. The Lancet medical journal study is still a reliable source of data.
Again, marijuana gets most of the attention lately, but as one can see from the data, it is not the least harmful of the 20 drugs assessed in The Lancet study. In fact, it ranked 8th most harmful with a harm score of 20 out of 100. If the illegality of marijuana is being questioned widespread, I believe it reasonable to question the illegality of some of these other drugs as well, especially those less harmful.
Personally, I prefer MDMA to alcohol and marijuana. I don’t smoke, and I seldom drink. First, the high from MDMA is typically uplifting and euphoric versus the depressive drunkenness of alcohol. Secondly, MDMA is by far the less dangerous of the two, according to The Lancet study and CDC data. So, I don’t feel particularly guilty about engaging from time to time in the vice that is MDMA, or ecstasy.
I’m a circuit boy, which I suppose can best be described as the gay community’s counterpart to the ravers in heterosexual mainstream society—we love music, we love dancing and we love our drugs, and the evidence would seem to indicate we’re more responsible about it than consumers of alcohol, or at least that our chosen recreational poisons are overall safer.
Also, here’s a fun little fact: According to a study published in Psychology Today, people of higher intelligence have a tendency to consume more drugs than do those of lesser intelligence, i.e. there is a positive correlation between intelligence and drug consumption.
Now, correlation is not causation. What this study certainly does not mean is that drugs make people smarter (au contraire, I would think), or that drugs are the “smart thing” to do. The only thing the study indicates is the higher one’s intelligence, the more likely one is to try drugs at some point. It really doesn’t say anything more than that, and there are numerous hypotheses that speculate about this correlation.
Whatever one’s opinion on drug consumption, more data continues to surface over recent years, especially with the debate over marijuana stronger than ever, and that data would seem to suggest the US hasn’t been entirely rational with its approach to drugs.
Despite data indicating the War on Drugs has been unsuccessful, and even detrimental, especially to racial minorities, it’s likely not going anywhere anytime soon. However, if the United States is finally considering the legalization of marijuana, it should also consider the legalization of less harmful drugs as well. Not everyone enjoys smoking, whether tobacco or marijuana, consumes alcohol or abuses prescription painkillers. There are several safer alternatives currently illegal in the United States that should also be talked about.
Ultimately, legalizing every drug and abandoning the War on Drugs altogether may not be the answer. Maybe the war on drugs just needs to be reformed. Or maybe it shouldn’t be a war at all, but an effort to reasonably try to balance the safety and freedom of society. Continuing the stigma and ignoring the data on all other drugs while the three most dangerous drugs of all get a pass, though, is anything but reasonable.