26 February 2011

Alcohol Needs a Less Dangerous Competitor

Millions of people in the UK (including myself) will get wasted on alcohol this evening. There's something inherent in humans (primates?) that makes being intoxicated an insatiable desire.

For many of us, it will be reasonably harmless fun, or at least nothing that a few ibuprofen, glasses of water and rashers of bacon in the morning won't sort out. In the process, many of us will make new friends, or improve the bond between existing friendships. Some of us will meet someone we end up falling in love with, and some of us will get laid.

But with all this, there are some serious downsides. A significant number of us will end up in hospital after an alcohol-fuelled attack, or spend the night in a police cell after being induced into violence. There will probably be a few deaths on the road caused by drunk driving. And in the long term, more and more of us are binging on alcohol too often, which is leading to higher rates of liver disease, as well as causing dependency and addiction.

Most of us know about these risks, but our instinctive enjoyment of inebriation makes the risks worth it. But that in turn means all these significant social costs won't go away unless there's a significant policy change that shifts society's relationship with alcohol.

The medical establishment's attempt to see minimum alcohol pricing didn't stand a chance up against the alcohol industry's powerful lobbying. Anything that could reduce our ability to get hold of our beloved alcohol is a hard sell politically, as our centreground-chasing politicians are terrified to do anything that will hit the wallets or lifestyles of swing voters in marginal constituencies. I admit experience shows that what I am about to suggest won't be any easier politically.

Those of us who seek inebriation tonight have little choice in the drug we take. Alcohol is the only legal means we have to artificially induce euphoria. The other options have been made illegal, which means tracking down a drug dealer and buying substances of unknown chemical composition, with the risk of getting caught and having the full weight of the law come down on you. Millions of (normally young) people every year take that extra risk, but a big majority of us don't.

However, given the huge problems alcohol will hand to the police and paramedics tonight, isn't there a better drug we could all be taking? I think there is.

Ecstasy is less toxic, less addictive and kills its users at a lower rate when compared to alcohol. The latest research (caution: only one trial) suggests that ecstasy may not have the negative effect on the brain that was once thought. Instead of making us violent towards each other, it would make us empathetic and 'loved up'.

This means there would lead to less violent crime and anti-social behaviour, and less pressure on health resources if users switched drugs.

However, it would mean users switching substances. Alcohol and ecstasy simply don't mix. Alcohol takes away from the stimulant effect of ecstasy, but both drugs place a great strain on the kidneys and can cause dehydration and overheating, so taken together compounds the immediate health risks. This in turn would mean the alcohol lobby would pile all its resources from stopping this from happening, because ecstasy would be a major rival to its substance-monopoly in the recreational drug market. The Daily Mail et al would also be morally outraged (for profit) at the mere thought of this.

I want to be clear:

• Whilst ecstasy remains illegal, I wouldn't suggest going near it. You don't know what's in it, and you don't want to give your money to criminals, or end up with a criminal record yourself. Sadly I doubt anyone who takes illegal drugs will ever bother heeding these sorts of warnings.

• I'm not advocating a switch of legal status of alcohol. That doesn't tend to work out too well.

• I'm also not suggesting that all alcohol users would be better using ecstasy. They are different drugs that induce different effects. Alcohol is primarily a depressant, whereas ecstasy is a stimulant. The issue is that alcohol at the moment is being used as a stimulant drug, which is having the negative consequences we see in our town centres at weekends. Frankly, many revellers would be better off taking ecstasy than alcohol.

In conclusion, my question is this:

When alcohol is a more dangerous and antisocial drug than ecstasy, why is ecstasy illegal?

I know which I'd rather be taking tonight.


Anonymous said...

"There's something inherent in humans (primates?) that makes being intoxicated an insatiable desire."

Er - speak for yourself. There are plenty of people out there who either don't drink alcohol at all or who have no problem in controlling the amount they drink.

"or spend the night in a police cell after being induced into violence."

Entirely a problem of your own making.

You have a choice.

Ignore peer pressure and control your drinking to an amount your body can manage comfortably.

Or recognise that if you are THAT dependent on boozing yourself into oblivion every Saturday then you might need some help - so go and get it.

Or carry on the way you are - in which case perhaps you deserve everything coming your way. I hope someone more deserving than you gets the liver transplant.

Duncan Stott said...


It's not every Saturday. It's probably about once a month that I really go for it. I'm not dependent. I enjoy getting drunk now and again. It's fun, it's sociable and it adds to my life rather than takes away.

I avoid oblivion - I've only been there once, 7 years ago, and I'm never going back.

The rest of the time I drink responsibly. I don't drink anything most nights.

I never have been in a police cell or hospitalised due to drink (or any other reason).

You may think the millions of us now and again who do get drunk are irresponsible. Fine. But it's happening, and it won't stop happening without a policy change.

Medics have made their suggestion. I've made another here. What do you suggest?

Anonymous said...

"It's probably about once a month that I really go for it. I'm not dependent. I enjoy getting drunk now and again."

i.e. now and again you apparently can't manage without it. That's having a problem in my book. Do something about it.

When you drink to excess you risk putting other peoples' lives and wellbeing at risk through drunken behaviour. That's a truly nasty selfish parasitic way to behave!

As I said earlier - I hope someone more deserving than you gets the liver transplant. No - I didn't approve of George Best getting one since he clearly wasn't dealing with his alcohol problem. That liver was clearly wasted on him when someone else might have taken better care of it.