A world-leading drug expert infamous for comparing the dangers of ecstasy to those of horse riding is in Auckland.
Professor David Nutt, a former advisor to the UK government, will deliver a public lecture at the University of Auckland tonight, spreading his message that alcohol does more damage to society than any other drug.
"It's responsible for such a large proportion of accidents, of violence, even things like burglaries are conducted very often when people are drunk, and then there's all the domestic violence," he said on Firstline this morning.
"It's that burden to society that makes alcohol the most harmful drug overall."
In 2009 Prof Nutt was fired from his job as chair of the UK's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs after criticising the disconnection between UK drug laws and the harm they cause.
"Horse riding – particularly if you jump – is more likely to harm you than taking ecstasy," he says. "But ecstasy is a relatively harmless drug – whereas if you then move to something like heroin, or as you have a problem here of crystal meth, then those are more harmful than horse riding."
But the law, here and in the UK, treats use of both those drugs as a serious criminal offence, while alcohol – and horse riding – is completely legal.
"People need to have policies which reduce harm, but we also need to make sure that the law reflects harm, because your law, my law, does not properly reflect the harms of drugs.
"There are people in prison, for instance, for using cannabis – which is a less harmful drug than alcohol. Is that right? I would say it's not."
All recreational drugs do have harms, he admits, but in many cases the state does more to ruin people's lives than the drug ever would.
"No drug is harmless – cannabis does have harms, and it can cause dependence – but it doesn't cause as much dependence as alcohol. I'm not saying we should make cannabis legal – I'm simply saying we shouldn't be criminalising users because criminalising them often does more damage to their life and their career than the drug itself."
Even if all recreational drugs were legalised, Prof Nutt says he'd still rank alcohol the worst of the lot because of the effect it has on people's personalities.
"There's an intrinsic problem with alcohol, which is it changes the way you make judgements about safety. People do not behave normally when they are intoxicated with alcohol – they become more violent, more aggressive, they take more risks when they're driving.
"That's why we drink – to lose judgement – and that's what it does. So I think there's a more intrinsic danger from alcohol than other drugs, which do not cause that kind of inhibition."
But there may be an alternative – Prof Nutt is developing a new drug he says mimics the good effects of alcohol, with none of the bad.
"It would not cause dependence, it would not cause aggression, it would not cause addiction, et cetera. That's what I'm trying to do – to get rid of the harms of alcohol."
It works by directly targeting neurotransmitters in the brain, which also means it can be reversed almost instantly with an antidote, leaving people able to drive home after a big night out. Prof Nutt says it could benefit drinkers in the same way e-cigarettes are improving the health of smokers.