We must re-evaluate our attitude to drugs – including alcohol

News flash: pounding £1 vodka shots at Hive makes you a drug user, and that is okay.

We do not often talk about alcohol as a drug; instead we tend to reserve that term for illegal substances. Ironically, a lack of factual drug and alcohol education combined with social pressure on young people to drink leads to many students failing to use alcohol responsibly while maintaining the fantasy that they do not do drugs. Meanwhile, cannabis is widely viewed as something dangerous, but in truth is nowhere as toxic as alcohol. As university students, we should be educating ourselves with factual information and scrutinising the role of drugs in our lives.

The simple statement ‘drugs are bad, don’t do drugs’, which many of us have heard countless times growing up is fraught with ignorance and naivety. ‘Don’t do drugs’? If you have ever popped an ibuprofen to prevent an oncoming headache, you have taken advantage of a household medical drug.

If you like a cup of caffeinated tea or coffee with your breakfast to help wake you up, you enjoy the effects of the world’s most widely used psychoactive drug. Are these instances ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’? Of course not, because these substances are safe and easy to use responsibly.

With some drugs, however, it is too easy to get it wrong. The ‘hard drugs’, like heroin, come to mind first: you only need to do a little more than five times ‘too much’ to have an overdose that will guarantee death. Scary stuff. But are you aware that you only need to take in 10 times ‘too much’ alcohol to guarantee death?

Now, that statement is not very specific, but most of us are already familiar with alcohol’s toxicity: the body forcefully ejects it if we take in too much too fast, we develop a crippling hangover if our system is intoxicated for too long, and if we really ‘go hard’ it is possible to end up in the hospital. Every year in the UK, the damage to our bodies from alcohol costs the NHS £3.5bn and kills 20,000 people.

If alcohol is so toxic, why do we still drink to get drunk? Well, it might come as a surprise that alcohol is rated to have a higher dependency potential than other recreational drugs like cannabis and MDMA.

Now, wait a second, most of us understand that drinking too much just is not worth it, and we have the self-control to drink responsibly and enjoy ourselves. When a friend admits to enjoying the effects of a few pints at the pub or a couple of shots at the odd flat party or club night, do you think of that friend as a drug user? Probably not. You would not feel compelled to ask why they choose to use the risky substance, and, here in the UK, you certainly would not feel uncomfortable around them simply because they admit to occasionally drinking to get intoxicated.

So why must cannabis users face these same issues? Why does the mood of a party suddenly change if someone starts rolling a joint, rather than pouring themselves another mixed drink?

It is high time we each sat down, separated ourselves from the wealth of misinformation and social biases, and educated ourselves about alcohol, cannabis, and other substances. We should have a hard think about what we choose to put into our bodies and why, and accept that others may choose to make different decisions.

Image credit: Steve Snodgrass

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