Drug users know their stuff

Drug users know their stuff

Drug users are well informed about the harms associated with the drugs they use, and perceive alcohol and tobacco to be amongst the most dangerous substances, according to a survey by UCL (University College London) and Imperial College London researchers. The findings, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, suggest that the current system of classifying psychoactive drugs in the UK may need to be revisited.

The study, led by Dr Celia Morgan and Professor Valerie Curran at UCL, surveyed 1,500 UK drug users via the website www.nationaldrugsurvey.org. Drug users were asked to rate twenty psychoactive substances on a 'rational' scale previously developed by Professor David Nutt, Imperial College London, who collaborated on this study. Heroin, crack and cocaine topped the list in terms of harm, but alcohol was rated fifth, solvents seventh and tobacco ninth. Ecstasy came 13th in the harm rating, LSD 16th and cannabis 18th. Thus, the survey found no relationship between the drug's legal status, based on the current classification system, and users' ratings of harm. In the UK, the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) currently classifies psychoactive drugs as A, B or C, though alcohol and tobacco remain unclassified.

Dr Celia Morgan, UCL Unit, says: "Given that the Misuse of Drugs Act aims to signal to young people the harmfulness of drugs, this suggests a flaw with the current classification of drugs. We found that drug users rated legal substances such as alcohol and tobacco as more harmful than Class A substances like LSD and ecstasy. We found a high correlation between harm ratings by users and those made previously by scientific experts across all substances, suggesting users are well informed about the harms of drugs.

"The reported prevalence of use of each substance also suggests that the classification of drugs has little bearing on the choice of whether to use substances or not. For example ecstasy, a Class A substance, was the fourth most regularly used psychoactive drug, according to our survey.

"We also asked about their perceived benefits of taking psychoactive substances, as this is clearly important in a person's decision of whether to take a drug or not. Psychoactive substances LSD, cannabis and ecstasy were consistently rated as having the highest short and long-term benefits. These findings add to the debate on the validity of the current classification of drugs in the UK.

"Worldwide, there are an estimated two billion alcohol users, 1.3 billion smokers and 185 million users of other drugs. Despite public health campaigns, levels of substance misuse continue to rise. One of the reasons for this may be the public's confusion about the actual risks of different drugs as they often receive conflicting messages from the legal system, the media and health campaigns. We recommend that future health campaigns consider whether to include the benefits of some drugs. By only citing harms, such campaigns likely represent - from a user's perspective - an unbalanced view and may mean that the overall message is more likely to be ignored."

The authors are following up the study with the launch of a new larger survey, in collaboration with the Beckley Foundation, hosted at internationaldrugsurvey.org.

The 20 substances surveyed in the 2009 study were alcohol, alkyl nitrates, amphetamines, anabolic steroids, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, buprenorphine, cannabis, cocaine, crack, ecstasy, GHB, heroin, LSD, ketamine, khat, 4-MTA, methylphenidate, solvents, street methadone and tobacco.

Participants were asked to rate them according to physical (acute or chronic) harm, psychological or physical dependence, intensity of pleasure, intoxication and social effects, including costs to the health service.

A similar survey of experts including psychiatrists and pharmacologists led by Professor Nutt in 2007 found that, of the same 20 psychoactive substances rated on a 'rational' scale, experts rated alcohol as the fifth most dangerous drug, whereas MDMA/ecstasy was rated 18th out of twenty, despite its Class A status. Overall, there was no relationship between a drug's legal status and its rated harmfulness. The 2007 study was published in the Lancet.

More information: Journal of Psychopharmacology

Source: University College London (news : web)

Citation: Drug users know their stuff (2009, November 24) retrieved 18 August 2019 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2009-11-drug-users.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Nov 25, 2009
hopefully this will change the pharmaceutical industry as well

Nov 25, 2009
Sadly, truth and authority are not linked. Those in authority ignore truth in favour of popularity for power, money through power or industry, or just sheer ignorance. Oh okay, that maybe a bit of a large tarred brush that I've splashed about, but politics does that you know.

Nov 26, 2009
Drugs that are illegal or illegally obtained tend to be abused more readily than legal drugs. Thus we would expect to find a higher proportion of alcohol drinkers taking their alcohol in moderation, perhaps occasionally becoming tipsy, than takers of, say, cannabis which is more likely to be taken to excess so that the equivalent of 'drunkenness' or intoxication is reached.

Though there are likely to be moderate or sensible users of all drug classes, if the risk is taken to obtain drugs illegally then one will be more inclined to 'make it worth the effort'. This would be true even of legal drugs obtained illegally.

So we ask: is the abuse of illegal drugs being compared with the sensible use of legal drugs by the advocates of current laws, and excessive use of legal drugs being compared to the sensible or moderate use of illegal drugs by the advocates of legalisation or decriminalisation of currently illegal drugs?

Nov 26, 2009
@RobertKarlStonjek: I agree with your first premise, but for different reasons that you, I believe. Illegal drugs are easy to come by, but there is a certain self-recruitment to that sort of use. It's sought after by those who like to break boundaries or have social and/or mental issue that spur on self-medication issues.

As such one would expect to see a higher degree of addiction. (Addiction is in itself a less well-defined term than most think, and it's often formulated in ways that are not particularly useful.)

However, cannabis seems to cause less addiction than alcohol, and while cocaine and heroin seems to be more addictive than alcohol, tobacco/nicotine is by far the most addictive substance.

Moving on from addiction to problematic use - or abuse as some would call it - it is also clear that the majority of really, really bad things that happen to drug users are in fact a consequence of the drug laws and not the drug itself. Overdoses e.g.occur because of unknown potency

Nov 28, 2009
I would say legal drugs are treated with less caution than the illegal ones due to the misconception that they are 'safe' and have the government stamp of approval. Just look at what's happening in the UK with mephedrone, because it's unclassified people are hitting it with the fury of an angry god when it's probably more damaging to the heart than amphetamine.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more