Drugs

5 Reasons Booze Is Deadlier than Heroin and Other Drugs That'll Land You in Jail

No other drugs even come close.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com / Piotr Marcinski

When you think of the “deadliest drug,” what do you picture? Do you imagine dirty needles and pill bottles strewn across the floor? Do scenes from Hollywood's dingiest heroin and crack dens (a la Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream) flash through your mind?

If so, you’ve been misled.

Alcohol is the most dangerous drug out there. No other drugs—not meth, not heroin, not crack, and certainly not psychedelics like MDMA—even come close. It tops the charts in everything from addiction, to deadly accidents, to the increased likelihood of homicide, rape, partner violence and violence against women in general.

Here are five ways booze is deadlier than the many drugs the US government criminalizes and deems most dangerous.

1. More murders happen under the influence of alcohol than other drugs. Alcohol is behind more homicides than “every other substance, combined,” as Harold Pollack put it recently in a Washington Post article. According to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence (NCADD), federal research shows alcohol was a factor in the homicides committed by 40 percent of convicted murderers being held in jail or state prison in the US. In the US, about 40% of people serving time for violent offenses were drinking at the time of their crime.

“Among those who had been drinking, average blood-alcohol levels were estimated to exceed three times the legal limit,” Pollack reported.

2. Murder victims often have alcohol in their systems. Victims of homicide are more likely to have alcohol in their systems than another drug. This is most likely because of the way alcohol use impairs judgement, increasing the chances of becoming the victim of violence. As Pollack put it:

“You’re less likely to leave that cutting remark unanswered. If you’re unfit to drive, you’re more willing to accept that ride home from a helpful stranger.” Pollack cites recent data from the Illinois Violent Death Reporting System, showing the recent toxicology results for homicide victims in Illinois. His article summed up this trend in the following chart, which is based on research at the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute on 3,016 homicides in five Illinois counties between 2005 and 2009:

As the chart shows, alcohol was found to be the sole drug in 34 percent of homicide victims’ systems. Alcohol and cocaine combined were found in 5 percent of victims, cocaine only in another 5 percent, and opiates in just 3 percent.

3. Violence associated with cocaine is decreasing, while crime associated with alcohol is on the rise. In the last 15 years, violent crime associated with cocaine use has been in decline while crime following alcohol consumption continues to increase. In Chicago’s Cook County Jail, positive cocaine screens “are down by about half when compared with ten or twenty years ago. The same is true in many other cities,” the Post reported.

According to the National Council on Alcholism and Drug Dependence, “Among violent crimes, the offender is far more likely to have been drinking than under the influence of other drugs, with the exception of robberies, where other drugs are likely to have been used such as alcohol.”

4. Alcohol use increases the chances of domestic violence, more than any other drug. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the link between alcohol abuse and both the prevalence and severity of domestic violence is undeniable. The World Health Organization says that, “Studies of intimate partner violence routinely identify the recent consumption of alcohol by perpetrators." A WHO fact sheet states that victims believed their partner to have been drinking prior to 55 percent of physical assaults in the US.

Meanwhile, scientists recently found that frequent cannabis use—which remains a federal felony—decreases the likelihood of domestic violence.

5. Alcohol is more likely to send you to an addiction treatment center than any other drug. According to the most current data listed on the National Institute on Drug Abuse website, alcohol accounts for the most admissions to drug abuse treatment centers in the US. In 2008, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s Treatment Episode Data Set reported 41.4 percent of admissions were for alcohol while heroin and other opiates accounted for 20 percent of admissions. Marijuana came in third, at 17 percent; however, it’s likely that the majority of marijuana admissions occurred through court mandate, rather than necessity.

As AlterNet reported in August 2011:

“According to SAMHSA figures from 2009, 56 percent of the more than 350,000 people admitted to drug treatment for marijuana were referred by the criminal-justice system, such as after an arrest or probation violation. Only 15 percent were “self-referred,” seeking rehab voluntarily. For the 282,000 heroin admissions, the proportions were exactly the opposite: 55 percent came in on their own, and only 15 percent were referred by legal authorities. For crack, 36 percent of the about 130,000 admissions were self-referred, and 29 percent sent over by the criminal-justice system.”

While alcohol is not as addictive as heroin and cocaine, it is far more widely used than those substances, which explains the high admission rates. (In a NIDA-supported survey, 15 percent of people who use alcohol were found to develop a dependence issue. That figure was 17 percent for cocaine and 23 percent for heroin.)

While alcohol is more likely to cause a person to commit rape, murder, or partner violence, people who become dependent on drinking are able to seek treatment for their problem without fear of a felony record and prison time. So, it stands to reason that people with alcohol abuse issues are more likely to check themselves into a treatment center than people addicted to other substances. Meanwhile, the unlucky person who happens to become dependent on an illegal substance is treated like a criminal.

April M. Short is the editor in chief of Reset. She previously worked as drugs editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @AprilMShort