Scientists has this week confirmed a confronting reality, that people are significantly more likely to die from alcohol, nicotine, cocaine and heroin than they are from marijuana use. The research suggests that the risks posed by alcohol consumption have likely been underestimated as deadly chemical, while those posed by marijuana should be considered much less risky. Could it be that our legislation is focussed on the wrong risks?
The report by Scientific Reports shows that cannabis, referred to as “weed” is approximately 114 times less deadly than booze. This was demonstrated by the comparison of a lethal dose with the amount a person typically uses. Marijuana was the only drug studied that posed a low mortality risk to its users.
The study effectively reaffirms findings that were used to create american drug safety ratings more than ten years ago, but it is pertinent given the global debate on the safety of marijuana and the deregulation or even acceptance of its use.
According to the study, and a following report in the Washington Post, at the individual level, booze presents the highest risk of death, followed by nicotine, cocaine and heroin, suggesting the risks of alcohol consumption have likely been underestimated in the past. Marijuana was found to be significantly less deadly and sat at the other end of the spectrum, in agreement with previous research which has consistently ranked it as the safest recreational drug. While this may not be what governments want to hear, it highlights the need to use scientific evidence whilst creating policies regarding the use of licit and illicit drugs.
Few studies over the years have been able to quantify the risks of illicit drugs to understand how toxic they are or how addictive they are. Illegal drug abuse has long been seen as a bigger problem for society than the use of known harmful substances like alcohol and prescription drugs so much legislation is based on placing policy around people’s fears. But the researchers say that lot of the harm associated with drug use is not due to the drug itself, but rather the environment in which it is taken, for example sharing dirty needles, and this wasn’t taken into account by the study.
There has not been many studies that have actually looked at how toxic each of the substances are when used at chronic levels to compare the ration at which people would use regularly with the rate people die from exposure. The drugs that scientists looked at included heroin, cannabis, nicotine, alcohol, methadone, amphetamine and MDMA. The report authors, Lachenmeier and Rehm say their findings should not be interpreted to say that moderate alcohol consumption poses a higher risk to an individual and their close contacts than regular heroin use even though it appears higher on the scale than any of the other chemicals.
The findings in Scientific Reports, showed that, at the level of individual use, four substances were classified as high risk: alcohol, nicotine, cocaine and heroin. The others fell into the so-called “risk” category. However, if we look at the risks for the population rather than the individual, only alcohol was considered high risk. According to the results, cannabis is around 114 times less deadly than alcohol and was the only drug out of those examined to pose a low risk of death.
The authors of the report are adamant. Governments would be better spending their resources managing the risks of alcohol and tobacco than illegal drugs, and that regulation of low risks drugs like marijuana could be a better and more justified approach.
What do you think? Do our governments focus too hard on illicit drug use?