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Alcohol the Most Dangerous Drug? Probably Not

Alcohol the Most Dangerous Drug? Probably NotResearchers using their own classification and rating system in order to try and assess a drug’s overall harmful effects — not to oneself, but to society as a whole too — recently published their findings. Here’s what they found, according to various news outlets:

    The Most Dangerous Drugs? Alcohol, Heroin and Crack—in That Order
    TIME – Catherine Mayer

    Alcohol is more harmful than heroin or crack: study
    New York Daily News

    Study: Alcohol ‘most harmful drug,’ followed by crack and heroin
    CNN International

    Experts: Alcohol More Harmful Than Crack or Heroin
    WebMD – Tim Locke

If you just read the headlines, you’d think the study showed that the most dangerous drug available today is alcohol, based upon clinical or government data.

It’s easy to say that, too, because that’s what the authors also said in their study (published in The Lancet medical journal):

[H]eroin, crack cocaine, and metamfetamine were the most harmful drugs to individuals, whereas alcohol, heroin, and crack cocaine were the most harmful to others. Overall, alcohol was the most harmful drug (overall harm score 72), with heroin (55) and crack cocaine (54) in second and third places.

Ah yes, that little thing we like to call complexity rears its ugly head. And oops, did we mention there’s no actual research data in the study?

In terms of your personal health, alcohol takes a back seat to heroin, crack cocaine, and metamfetamine (known more commonly here in the U.S. as crystal meth) — all of which cause twice the amount of damage to you than alcohol (according to the researchers).

Where alcohol gets its crowning title is because of its effects on those around you and in society in general. This chart breaks it down into colorful categories for you to examine:

Click for a larger image

Alcohol is indeed the drug that does society the most harm, according to the researchers, but this may be a factor related to its wide distribution and popularity. And the fact that it is one of the few legal drugs most citizens can enjoy.

What isn’t emphasized in the reporting of this study is that the study is not based upon empirical, scientific data. It’s basically the findings of survey research.

The data are based solely upon a group of experts who met, agreed upon some criteria, and then gave their subjective ratings of each of the drugs on each criteria. Was it at least a large group of experts, you know, like 100 or something, from every part of the world?

Nope, it’s the pooled opinions of 15 folks from the UK. Including a journalist, two lecturers, a “drug education expert,” and a GP, amongst its other members.

That’s certainly one way of measuring harm. Getting together a panel of “experts,” setting up some criteria, and then rating each drug. But there’s another way too. Using actual government data about treatment rates, crime rates, divorce rates, etc. to put together a comprehensive, data-driven analysis of each drug.

This was not done in the current study. What we have in the current study is simply a group of 15 professional opinions on the matter. An interesting story, but not really one based in hard data, the kind you can point to and say, “Well, here’s the actual evidence for the impact of this drug in this community.”

Last, I have to point out the study is actually entitled, “Drug harms in the UK.” While the opinions of these 15 experts may have some validity in other countries, it’s also quite likely that the cultural impact of different drugs in different countries is, well, different. Again, I couldn’t find much mention of this cultural difference in the mainstream reports on this study.

Alcohol the Most Dangerous Drug? Probably Not

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Alcohol the Most Dangerous Drug? Probably Not. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 1 Nov 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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