I am reading David Nutt’s book Drugs – Without the Hot Air, which is excellent, although as I will get to later, my timing is not great. Incidentally, as he admits in the book, he is best known as the scientific advisor that the then Home Secretary Alan Johnson sacked a few years ago. He says a number of things in the book, but I can illustrate a key point he is making as follows. Consider two drugs: A and B. Large doses of A can kill you on the spot, it is responsible for damage to society on a huge scale, tens of thousands of deaths every year, and can be addictive. Drug B does not, even in very large doses, kill you directly, although it is harmful. It is also not addictive. If you tell you one of these in legal and the other illegal, can you guess which one is illegal?
It is drug B of course. LSD is a Class A drug in the UK, with penalties of up to 7 years for possession, and up-to-life imprisonment for dealing. And although it is certainly harmful, it is difficult to overdose on LSD. Drug A is alcohol, and about one person a day in the UK overdoses on it so much they die. And many thousands destroy their livers, causing ill health and ultimately death. It is also possible to become chemically dependent on alcohol, as the UK’s quite large population of alcoholics can attest, something that is not really possible with LSD.
I read all this the day after I enjoyed a trip with friends to the Reading Beer festival. So neither I, nor David Nutt who also admits to liking a drink, are going to advocate making alcohol illegal. But he does make some pretty compelling arguments for treating alcohol more like tobacco, i.e., for applying some of the measures we as a society have used to reduce tobacco consumption, to alcohol. Measures such as ramping up the tax, particularly on supermarket and off-licence sales, and clamping down on advertising alcohol.
Alcohol is a drug that affects our brains – this is why we drink it. It both depresses some brain processes and stimulates others. We use its stimulant properties in social situations, as many of us can be better company if mildly stimulated. It’s ability to depress other brain functions is why it is popular in the evening after a long stressful day, it suppresses the bit of the brain where we worry about stuff.
This is fine in moderation, I would say, I use alcohol for both purposes. But it is probably best to bear in mind that alcohol is a drug. And reading the book is making me worry a bit about being in a society in which it is almost impossible to switch on a TV without being bombarded by fun ads for one drug, while you can get 7 years in prison for just possessing a much less addictive drug.