10 November 2009

The elusive truth about drugs

Earlier this month a great row erupted in the U.K. when the government fired Professor David Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, for claiming that evidence about drug harm was being distorted and the issue politicized. One of the things that intrigues me about the affair is Professor Nutt's findings about what he refers to as "a peculiar media imbalance in relation to drugs."

In reference to a comprehensive study in Scotland, he noted that over the decade of the 1990s, Scottish newspapers reported on 546 drug deaths out of the 2,255 that occurred. The reporting ratios were as follows:
  • For aspirin, one out of every 256 deaths was reported
  • For morphine, one in 72
  • For heroin, one in five
  • For methadone, one in 16
  • For amphetamines, one in three
  • For cocaine, one in eight
  • For ecstasy, almost every death was reported
Certain facts jump out at the reader. For instance, the limited attention paid to legal drugs such as aspirin and morphine compared to the close attention paid to heroin, cocaine and even amphetamines even though amphetamine deaths were relatively rare. Ecstasy deaths were even rarer, yet the newspapers hardly missed a one, clearly creating the impression ecstasy is more dangerous than it is.

No alcohol deaths were reported on even though this would have added another 2,000-3,000 to the total, as many or more than all the other drugs combined. No cannabis deaths were reported either, but then you can't die of cannabis overdose.

Obviously, newspaper readers in Scotland get a distorted picture of the relative danger of various drugs. It would be interesting to see a similar study done in this country. If our newspapers are as biased as theirs, we may be basing our drug policies on misconceptions.

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