Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Alcohol -- the new heroin

We're working on some posts related to the tidal wave of new genetic determinism.  But we want to do that carefully and properly rather than hastily.  Meanwhile, there are other Hot Items to post about:

There's a story on the BBC radio and website about a paper in The Lancet reporting a new classification of illegal drugs, along with alcohol and tobacco.  They find that according to their classification scheme alcohol is more destructive than any of the illegal drugs, including heroin and crack cocaine.

The authors of the paper applied "multicriteria decision analysis" (MCDA) to the problem -- sounds scientific, doesn't it? (Indeed, there's a whole journal of MCDA; the idea is to allow decision makers to apply 'scientifically sound' criteria to policy decisions that are otherwise essentially subjective.)
Members of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, including two invited specialists, met in a 1-day interactive workshop to score 20 drugs on 16 criteria: nine related to the harms that a drug produces in the individual and seven to the harms to others. Drugs were scored out of 100 points, and the criteria were weighted to indicate their relative importance.
MCDA modelling showed that heroin, crack cocaine, and metamphetamine were the most harmful drugs to individuals (part scores 34, 37, and 32, respectively), whereas alcohol, heroin, and crack cocaine were the most harmful to others (46, 21, and 17, respectively). Overall, alcohol was the most harmful drug (overall harm score 72), with heroin (55) and crack cocaine (54) in second and third places.
This is an interesting conclusion in its own right, and the issues of prohibition and legalization have been widely discussed on the BBC and elsewhere as a result because the harmfulness of alcohol is largely due to its legal and thus widespread use compared with illegal substances.  But this also tells us something about the limitations of science as it pertains to policy decisions.  The authors of the study recognize upfront that there is much subjectivity in the assessment of 'harm' and 'danger' and have tried to at least take that into account in their classification scheme using MCDA.  But, the measures are still subjective, and that undermines their 'scientific' nature, to say the least.

More importantly, the results will be ignored.  Policy decisions about drug legalization will still be political.  We learned long ago that we cannot successfully ban alcohol from society.  We are not yet to the stage where even marijuana can be widely legitimized.  No matter what the science says, we won't ban alcohol, you can bet your beer on it.  And despite attempts to stifle it, there is no sign that we have the gumption to ban tobacco (nor, according to a great many people who smoke, sniff, or chew, would that be in any way justified so long as the only harm is self-directed).

Similarly, matter what the science says, we simply are not going to legalize all recreational drugs. Why?  This is a cultural view, not one about the facts.  We won't, at least not in the US and Britain.  No matter how much damage the drug lords in Mexico or Afghanistan or Colombia cause to our own population.  No matter that it is our usage here in the US and Europe that is responsible for the trade.  We are not going to legalize it, even if it's as harmless as a baby's smile (it isn't, of course).  Culture will have to lead any such change.


James Goetz said...

Hmm, I wonder if California marijuana smokers are less likely than the general public to make it to the voting booth today? That could work against their cause or is that nothing but a stereotype that I cannot resist mentioning?

occamseraser said...

Prop 19 is defeated.

Ken Weiss said...

The US is an interesting, unpleasantly angry and self-righteous country. It is unclear how voters vote, and it seems some angry right wingers vote against many let-me-decide-for-myself issues even so. I guess the best thing about it is it gives jobs for pundits (who are usually wrong).

James Goetz said...

"It is unclear how voters vote, and it seems some angry right wingers vote against many let-me-decide-for-myself issues even so."

My heart goes out to San Fransisco.:) No legal pot for the adults and no legal McDonald's Happy Meals for the kids.

"By Trevor Hunnicutt, Associated Press / November 3, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — For some veggies-hating children, Happy Meals won't be so happy anymore.

San Francisco's Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 on Tuesday to approve an ordinance that would limit toy giveaways in fast food children's meals that have excessive calories, sodium and fat. It also requires servings of fruits or vegetables with each meal.

If it survives an expected veto from Mayor Gavin Newsom, San Francisco would become the first major city in the country to pass such a law aimed at curbing childhood obesity. It would go into effect December 2011 if supervisors again approve it after Newsom's veto...."

However, I have my doubts that the San Francisco's Board of Supervisors is known for its "angry right wingers vote against many let-me-decide-for-myself issues.":)