Experts and drug users in agreement on harms of psychoactives, despite legal status

Arrangement of psychoactive drugsExperts and illicit drug users have similar views on the harms and benefits associated with psychoactive substances, according to a survey conducted in the United Kingdom.

The survey compared the ratings of 20 commonly used substances by 1,500 drug users to the ratings of a panel of experts. The survey was conducted by Celia J.A. Morgan and her colleagues from University College London and Imperial College London.

“The overall close agreement between the ratings of users and experts suggests that users are relatively well informed in relation to the harms of the substances they use,” Morgan and her colleagues write in their study. “Scales that did not show agreement between users and experts were the pleasure associated with the acute use of the social harms of intoxication.”

Despite their legal status, alcohol, solvents, and tobacco were rated within the top ten most harmful drugs. Users rated heroin, crack, and cocaine as the top three most harmful drugs and rated methylphenidate, khat, and alkyl nitrates as the three least harmful drugs.

In addition to investigating drug users’ opinion of the harmfulness of the 20 substances, the survey also examined their opinion of the acute and chronic benefits of the drugs.

“Ecstasy, LSD, and cannabis were all rated as high on both acute and chronic benefits,” the study found. “In considering a drug’s appeal, the benefits of taking it are clearly important because the choice to use or not reflects a risk-benefit analysis.”

Although the opinion of the experts generally coincided with the opinion of drug users, there were some discrepancies. Experts rated cannabis as more harmful than ecstasy, but the opposite was true for drug users, who rated cannabis as being less harmful.

Morgan and her colleagues suggest the survey has some implications for drug policy in the United Kingdom.

While the ratings of experts and drug users tended to coincide, there were “significant discrepancies” between the harms associated with the psychoactive substances and their legal status.

The study also suggests drug education programs should address the benefits of illicit substances as well as their harms.

“Future work should more fully assess the nature of these perceived benefits and take them into account in health education campaigns,” Morgan and her colleagues said. “By often only citing the harms, such educations campaigns likely represent – from a user’s perspective – an unbalanced view and this may mean that the overall message is more likely to be ignored.”

The survey was published in volume 24 of the Journal of Psychopharmacology in 2010.