By Maria Cheng, Globe and Mail, November 1, 2010
Heroin, crack cocaine and methamphetamine, or crystal meth, were the most lethal to individuals. When considering their wider social effects, alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine were the deadliest. But overall, alcohol outranked all other substances, followed by heroin and crack cocaine. Marijuana, ecstasy and LSD scored far lower.
The study was paid for by Britain's Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and was published online Monday in the medical journal, Lancet.
Experts said alcohol scored so high because it is so widely used and has devastating consequences not only for drinkers but for those around them.
“Just think about what happens (with alcohol) at every football game,” said Wim van den Brink, a professor of psychiatry and addiction at the University of Amsterdam. He was not linked to the study and co-authored a commentary in the Lancet.
When drunk in excess, alcohol damages nearly all organ systems. It is also connected to higher death rates and is involved in a greater percentage of crime than most other drugs, including heroin.
But experts said it would be impractical and incorrect to outlaw alcohol.
According to our family "lore" my maternal grandmother was an avid member of the W.C.T.U. (Women's Christian Temperance Union) in Ontario back in the early part of the twentieth century. As a little girl, as the story goes, she was sent to the gate of the mine in Copper Cliff where her father worked, every Friday afternoon, to retrieve his pay envelope and return it to their home, so that he would not spend every last penny at the bar where the miners gathered after work.
I have watched as other family members, one an aunt by marriage, became dependent on alcoholic beverages, to the tragic awareness of her spouse, my uncle. Whether or not he was also dependent was never clear, since our two families had little to do with each other. I also was told, many times, the story of my mother threatening my father, prior to my birth, after a party they had attended together.
"It's either the the parties and the booze or the marriage!" were the words my mother is reported to have uttered in their small apartment upon their arrival home from the party where apparently a considerable amount of the booze was consumed.
For my own part, in first year at university, at the old CPR Hotel on Richmond Street in London, I once imbibed with three (3) drafts of beer, and found myself quite giddy. Recognizing that I could find enough trouble without the assistance of alcohol, I never drank more than the occasional glass of wine, or Bubonnet, or an occasional "Caesar" with Mott's Clamato ever since.
I have literally poured my roommate into bed, after a particularly "drunk" return at the fraternity house. I have had to walk beside and support an elderly woman who was so drunk she could not make it from her car to the sanctuary of the church for the Sunday service where I served as vicar. I have fallen head-over-heels with a woman who turned out to be an active alcoholic, although I certainly did not know it at the time, and was expecting to marry her, only to learn that she had disappeared from the relationship, and returned to the bottle. Following this debacle, I entered into a form of treatment for people who had had relationships with alcoholics. The sessions involved re-enactments, through role-playing, of the various conflicts in which individuals had found themselves, and sought to learn a different way to approach similar situations. The program is commonly known as "psycho-drama."
I have conducted funeral services for a confirmed alcoholic, only to learn, later that his spouse was also drinking from morning til night every day, and when I tried to suggest that the social worker who was working on her file try to get her off her dependency, I learned that the social worker too was an active dependent on alcohol. His response, in the U.S., "It is not against the law to be drunk, only to kill someone, if one drinks and drives."
Years later, I was also hit upon by another woman who was married to an active life-long alcoholic, and my (internal) rescuer convinced me that I was helping her out of a bad situation, only to learn that our relationship, based as it was on her need for support and my need to be the rescuer, was doomed from the start.
So, I have first-hand experience that alcohol is an extremely disruptive, if not deadly drug, albeit legal, and the source of billions of tax dollars for all of the jurisdictions in which it is sold.
Those who abuse alcohol can be, and often are, the most charming and genial of people, often extremely clever, creative and positive, so long as they are not under the influence of the chemical. Yet, because of their dependence on alcohol, they are also extremely dangerous, to the point they will use whatever story they can concoct to induce support for their dependency, including their own conscious denial of their dependency.
I have known teachers, lawyers, doctors, clergy, social workers, and university professors whose dependency on alcohol seriously impaired their capacity to perform their professional duties, yet, somehow, they seemed immune to discipline, because often their supervisors either did not want to know, or refused to act upon the knowledge.
Once, while consulting with a company, for the purpose of developing a leadership team, I was informed, directly, that two of the members of the team (of five) were active alcoholics. They were both obstructing the performance of the company in serious ways. I informed the CEO of the situation, only to learn that that was not a piece of information to which he was open and receptive.
"Here is you cheque, now get off the property!" was his response.
I learned, through considerable pain, that confronting the alcoholic is never easy, or even likely to result in a happy outcome. I have watched the Betty Ford Life Story film, in which her family, including the former president of the United States, Gerry Ford, and his children confronted his wife (their mother) about her dependency on both alcohol and prescription drugs. Eventually, after her protest, and her entry into treatment, she established the Betty Ford Clinic where, today, thousands have been successfully treated and lead reasonable lives free of alcohol, in spite of their alcohol addiction.
There are several treatment options for alcoholics, including the most famous, Twelve Step Program, which now operates in many countries. Others differ in their assumptions and in their interventions. However, if there is a single person in any family who is dependent on any substance, it is time for those who love him/her to seek help, for themselves first, and then for the person who is dependent. If you live with a person who is dependent on alcohol, you are not the reason for that dependence. However, you may be enabling that dependence to continue, and perhaps to grow.
Like an unshakeable bear claw, that grabs and refuses to open to let the person go, alcohol is relentless in its capacity to win over the user who has become dependent. One person put it this way, in attempting to explain the allure of alcohol: "I was fairly lonely, seeking acceptance; I was also hurting as an abused sixteen-year-old, when I went to the first party where I had a beer. I knew right then, that here was what I was looking for; it could be depended upon to give me that good feeling every time I drank one, and I just wanted more and more of that feeling so I drank more and more, until it took over my life and the life of the person I thought I loved."