You hear it all the time in the news, magazines and word of mouth, “alcohol and drugs”.  Why is there a distinction between alcohol and all other drugs?  You never hear “tobacco and drugs” or “marijuana and drugs” so what makes alcohol  so special?

The separation of alcohol from other drugs in the media and common speech has been going on for a long time.  Alcohol is the most commonly used intoxicating drug in the world.  Roughly 80% of North Americans use some form of alcohol on a regular basis.  The majority of people do not want to be branded a “drug user” because of the ongoing propaganda demonizing drugs and drug users.  If you drink alcohol you are in fact a drug user.  Alcohol is a great drug and I’ve had a lot of good times on it but lets not forget it is just as bad as any drug out there.

Those who are in favour of the separation of alcohol from other drugs will tell you that most of the people who use alcohol do so in a responsible or “social” way.  That is true but alcohol is not the only drug that is used in a responsible way.  The overwhelming majority of marijuana use is done so in a responsible way.  The same is true for most illicit drugs including cocaine, heroin, ecstacy, lsd and many more.  Irresponsible use is simply not sustainable over a long period of time.  Nearly all oversdoeses occur at the extreme ends of the spectrum, first time users and hard-core addicts.

Alcohol is not only a drug it is a hard drug. It is addictive, powerful and potentially lethal.  Alcohol can and does cause cellular abnormalities, high blood pressure, organ damage, and cancer.  Moderate alcohol use leads to impaired motor function, reckless behaviour, slurred speech and possible hangover.  Higher doses can lead to vomiting, loss of consciousness and death.  It is shockingly easy to overdose on alcohol, the amount of alcohol that can kill you is not much more than people drink recreationally.  You are considered legally drunk with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 in many countries, while a BAC of .37 can kill you.  A potentially lethal dose is equivalent to 7 drinks in one hour for a 100 lb female or 12 drinks in one hour for 140 lb male.  How many illegal drugs are that dangerous?  Studies show that alcohol poses a higher risk to society than many illegal drugs (link 1, link2).

This chart sums up the alcohol hypocrisy. It ranks drugs based on the amount of drug it takes to get high vs how much it takes to kill you:

Alcohol is a chemical.  In the chemistry world it is referred to as ethanol which has the chemical formula C2H5OH.  Non-drug ethanol uses include general purpose solvent, additive to gasoline and the red stuff in thermometers.  It is a man-made chemical that has to be refined before it is consumed. Alcohol is just as much a “chemical drug” as methamphetamine or LSD.

Alcohol produces its effects by manipulating your brain’s neurotransmitters just like every other drug.  Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that is used all over your brain, alcohol increases the inhibitory effect of GABA.  Alcohol simultaneously blocks glutamate receptors, glutatmate is a general purpose excitatory neurotransmitter.  The combined effect of alcohol  inhibits many activities within the brain, influencing behavioral output.  Alcohol also stimulates the reward center of the brain (the nucleus accumbens) which leads to and reinforces addiction.

The hallmark of hard drugs is addiction.  Alcohol does not disappoint in this regard.  There are an estimated 16 million alcoholics in the US and 1.5 million in Canada.  Over 43% of North Americans have been exposed to alcoholism in their families.  The body and brain of an alcoholic become dependent on the drug’s effect. Without a drink, an alcoholic may experience withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, nausea, and tremors. In severe cases, seizures may result.  Drug addicts rank alcohol withdrawal symptoms as worse than heroin withdrawals in scientific studies.  A tolerance also develops, over time an alcoholic will need more and more alcohol to achieve the same results.  The prevalence, accessibility and social acceptance of alcohol make it one of society’s most widespread and costly addictions

Alcohol is clearly a hard drug, the kind that the media tries to give us nightmares about.  It fits the criteria for a schedule 1 controlled substance under US law word for word.  It is addictive, potentially lethal, has a high potential for abuse and no medical value. If the drug war had anything at all to do with the ill effects of drug use alcohol would be among the prohibited substances.  Marijuana is currently listed under schedule 1 even though it fits none of the criteria and has been proven effective in treating the symptoms of numerous medical conditions and has the potential to cure cancer.  Cocaine is in schedule 2 because it has medical potential as an anesthetic.  Apparently US lawmakers consider a rarely used anesthetic to have more medical merit than a non-toxic drug that has numerous proven medical uses.  They also somehow overlooked a widely used substance that embodies many of the harms they claim to be protecting us from.

So why is alcohol separated from other drugs in speech as well as regulation?  The answer is simple, money.

Americans spend over $90 billion dollars total on alcohol each year.  It is a massive industry with big corporations and big lobbyists.  Each year the liquor industry spends almost $2 billion dollars on advertising and encouraging the consumption of alcoholic beverages.  Each year, a typical young person in the United States is inundated with more than 1,000 commercials for beer and wine coolers and several thousand fictional drinking incidents on television.  Alcohol is commonly consumed on network TV shows, so much that if often goes unnoticed.  Try to count the number of times you see alcohol make an appearance on you favorite shows.  Then count how many joints you see.  Major liquor companies such as American Brands (Jim Beam whiskey),  Philip Morris ( Miller beer) and Anheuser Busch (Budweiser, Michelob, Busch beer) donate vast sums of money to anti-drug advertising groups like the Partnership for a Drug Free America.

Society is pushing alcohol on us in ways that we might not be aware of.  Direct advertising and product placement in our favorite shows is somewhat obvious but what other methods are being used.  The war on drugs, specifically marijuana eliminates safer alternatives to alcohol.  Marijuana is not addictive, does not cause cancer or other health problems that alcohol does and a lethal overdose on marijuana is physically impossible.  The media and the government conspire to demonize marijuana leaving alcohol as the only legal intoxicant.

Just look what happened to Michael Phelps.  Arguably the greatest Olympic athlete in history got jumped on by the international media for smoking a bong.  Kegs and champagne are present at all kinds of sports championships from the super bowl to formula 1 racing, the winners are often photographed being sprayed with alcohol, but one bong hit and you lose major sponsers.

The fact that alcohol has been systematically separated from all other drugs shows how society is in denial about our drug use and how ridiculous our drug laws really are.  Selective prohibition is worse than the prohibition of alcohol in the 20s and 30s, all the same problems are present today.  We’ve made billionaires out of criminals and locked up millions of good hard working citizens for a victimless crime.  As the saying goes “A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.”

For info on the relative harms of marijuana and alcohol look no further than SAFER. Or get yourself a copy of the new book “Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?