‘Alcohol is not harmful’

The end of the socialist trentes glorieuses saw the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) put in force in the UK to discourage citizens from ‘misusing’ certain substances. Despite it being a logical impossibility to ‘misuse’ something with no mode of use that is deemed correct or valid, the Act includes not only ‘medicinal’ substances but also those classed as having ‘no therapeutic purpose’.

The Act’s primary objection to the ‘misuse’ of such substances is their ‘undesirable’ side-effects, listed as addiction and dangerous or ‘bizarre’ behaviour.

Superseding the Dangerous Drugs Act (1965), one of the most significant changes in the 1971 Act was the classification of substances according to relative degrees of ‘harm’ from ‘misuse’. In terms of the Act, ‘harm’ is not a measure of physiological toxicity. It is a function of whether the drug is being ‘misused’ or how likely it is to be ‘misused’ (i.e. its desirability), and the extent to which its use constitutes a ‘social problem’.

So, the Misuse of Drugs Act explicitly and unashamedly counters our own desires.

What is the ‘social problem’ of the effects of psychedelic substances (that are neither addictive nor toxic), that warrants their classification among the ‘most harmful’? Psychedelic experience enables people to learn about their minds, and to think differently. It can make people more open to new experiences (MacLean et al. 2011). It can make people more empathetic and less neurotic (Wagner et al. 2017). It can lead people to see greater beauty and value in life and the natural world (Griffiths 2006, 2008). These attitudes and behaviours obstruct the goals of an individualised, neoliberal society keen on increasing productivity and achieving dominion over nature.

Alcohol is a highly desirable drug; it lowers inhibitions, helping us to relax and connect with one another. It tastes good. It is woven into the physical and ritual infrastructure of our society and is associated with leisure, socialising, eating, sex and other pleasurable activities. Alcohol is a direct cause of social problem. Lowered inhibition can lead to aggression and impaired judgement. Accidents are caused by loss of psychomotor control and/or slower reaction times. Such incidents inflict physical and emotional harm to the drinker and those around them. In addition, alcohol is physiologically addictive and toxic. It is broken down in the liver, mouth and gut to acetaldehyde, a carcinogen that causes cancers of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, breast, liver and bowel. Alcohol causes liver damage (cirrhosis) and produces highly reactive molecules in cells that can damage DNA and further increase susceptibility to cancer and other diseases.

According to the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971), alcohol is not harmful.


Griffiths, R. et al. 2006. Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained  personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology, 187, pp.268-283

Griffiths, R. et al. 2008. Mystical-type experiences occasioned by psilocybin mediate the attribution of personal meaning and spiritual significance 14 months later. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 22 (6), pp.621-632

MacLean, K. A., Johnson, M. W. and Griffiths, R. R. 2011. Mystical experiences occasioned by the hallucinogen psilocybin lead to increases in the personality domain of openness. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 22 (11), pp.1453-1461.

Wagner, M.T. et al. 2017. Therapeutic effect of increased openness: Investigating mechanism of action in MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. Journal of Psychopharmacology

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