Alcohol is ranked almost as harmful as heroin in a controversial new drug classification system proposed by a team of leading scientists.
The class A drug Ecstasy, possession of which can result in a seven-year prison sentence, is placed near the bottom of the league table which lists "harm scores" for different substances.
LSD, another class A drug, is also considered relatively safe despite its powerful hallucinogenic properties.
Cannabis, recently downgraded to class C, occupies a middle position. It is rated more dangerous than Ecstasy, LSD and the dance floor drug GHB, but less harmful than tobacco.
The table, published in The Lancet medical journal, was drawn up by a team of highly respected scientists led by Professor David Nutt, from the University of Bristol, and Professor Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council.
It is intended to be a model for policy makers which is more scientifically based than the current Misuse of Drugs Act system that attaches "a, b, and c" labels to illicit drugs.
This eminently sensible list is based on a number of different criteria.
The scientists identified three main factors that together determined the harmfulness of a controlled substance.
These were: The physical harm to the individual user caused by the drug, the tendency of the drug to induce dependence, and the effect of the drug's use on families, communities and society.
One of my arguments has always been that (heroin aside) the stronger drugs tend to be less harmful because you cannot take them sustainably. One cannot spend one's whole time on Ecstasy, for instance, because one would find it damn near impossible to hold down a job; besides, the drug is self-limiting through the law of diminishing returns: the more one takes it, the less effect it has. This is one of the reasons that people tend to "grow out of" such substances.
However, alcohol and cigarettes (and, indeed, cannabis), for instance, can be taken very regularly over the period of decades and thus do more long-term harm. They also become more addictive, with the physical addiction supplemented by a habit-forming one.
Of course, I think we should just legalise, regulate and tax the whole lot of them since the vast majority of the damage that the illegal drugs do, to both individuals and society, derives mainly from their illegality...