Drugs and Harm

Qat tree, Yemen. By Mufaddalqn (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I am currently teaching a course on the global drug trade, which examines the many public policy and legal issues related to drugs. One of the themes that students have commented on in the course is that the legal penalties for drugs don’t always reflect the amount of harm that they cause. For example, one of my students shared that their father had become addicted to opioids that he had been prescribed for pain. Why were opioids legally available to treat pain, while in many states marijuana was not, even though opioids were far more dangerous? Another student brought up the issue of khat, a leaf that is chewed as a mild stimulant in East African communities, and which is now illegal in countries such as Britain. One of the arguments for banning khat had been that it undermined communities, but my student argued that in fact chewing khat was a means to bring people (usually males) together in African societies. They also suggested that it was far less harmful than alcohol, which is legal in the United States and Britain. The recent decision to ban khat in the United Kingdom had impacts in East Africa.

One of my students shared a graph from Wikipedia titled “Rational harm assessment of drugs radar plot.” The caption stated: “Addiction experts in psychiatry, chemistry, pharmacology, forensic science, epidemiology, and the police and legal services engaged in delphic analysis regarding 20 popular recreational drugs. Barbiturates were ranked 5th in dependence, 3rd in physical harm, and 4th in social harm.” Much of the information on the graph is unsurprising, such as the fact that experts widely agreed that heroin is the most destructive drug. It’s clear, however, that the legal consequences of drug use bear little relation to the harm that they may do. Alcohol, for example, is perceived to be far more harmful than Khat, while barbiturates are judged to be more dangerous than cannabis. Of course, all these drugs also have some form of harm associated with them, and some have devastated individuals and communities. Still, this graph might be a useful tool to frame public policy decisions related to the drug trade.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

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