The mainstream media tends to issue more news about illegal drugs than alcohol. Stories about illegal drugs are also more negative and the media are more likely to present them as dangerous, morally destructive and associated with violent behavior and drug users as irresponsible and degenerate people.
In fact, the media are more likely to link illegal drugs to violent crime, sexual assault and homicide than alcohol. All this despite a study finding that 47% of homicides in Australia over a period of six years were related to alcohol.
The coverage of the recent Rainbow Serpent music festival in Australia is an example of how the media relates illegal drug use to violence. There were alleged physical and sexual assaults during the festival, which took place over five days, including Australia’s national day.
However, the truth is that there was not as much violence or sexual assault as would be expected in relation to alcohol in such a large concentration of people during Australia’s national day.
Given that media information plays an important role the opinions that people form, this could make people believe that illegal drugs are more likely to lead to violence than alcohol. This is due to a cognitive tendency or “mental shortcut” known as the heuristic of availability that leads people to form opinions based on the most recent information they receive.
What do data tell us about the likelihood that alcohol or other drugs will end in violence? Are there drugs that are worse?
What do the facts tell us?
Most alcohol and drug-related violence in Australia is due to alcohol, with 26% of Australians claiming they have been affected by alcohol-related violence compared to 3.1% who claimed to have been affected by violence related to illegal drugs.
Although alcohol consumption rates remained relatively stable in Australia between 2003 and 2013, there was an 85% increase in alcohol-related family violence over the same period of time.
While some drugs such as methamphetamine (“crystal”) have been linked in a recent commission of investigation to the increase of the familiar violence, it is not clear the paper that play in this aspect.
How is it possible?
Alcohol and other drugs have different effects on the brain, so they lead to behaviors ranging from empathy and nullification to inhibition to aggression and violence.
In order to understand how alcohol and other drugs influence violence, we need to consider how they act in the body. When people drink alcohol, they experience a reduction in the functioning of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, a part that plays an important role in regulating behavior and in making decisions.
By drinking alcohol, people tend to make wrong choices and are more likely to react emotionally to situations where they could normally respond in a more rational and thoughtful way. When people drink, it is also less likely to consider the possible consequences of their actions.
The MDMA (“ecstasy”) works differently, producing a release of serotonin in the brain so that people increase their empathy for others and are more open emotionally. Hence, MDMA is rarely associated with violence unless it is taken along with other drugs such as alcohol or stimulants, or is thought to be ecstasy, when in fact it is a new drug that is harmful.
LSD (“acid”) is a psychedelic drug linked to certain serotonin receptors in the brain. Hence, LSD can lead to significant changes in consciousness and perception that may be therapeutic in clinical settings.
However, it can happen that a person is overwhelmed by the changes in perception caused by LSD at festivals, which leads some people to feel anguish and sometimes not to be aware of their actions. There are no studies that demonstrate a clear relationship between the use of LSD and violence.
It must be said that it is rare for a person to become violent under the effects of distress for having taken LSD at a festival. However, as with ecstasy, there is no quality control on the illegal drug market in Australia and some people have had violent reactions or been self-inflicted as a result of unintentional consumption of NBOME- type drugs sold As if they were LSD.
It appears that alcohol is probably more related to violence than MDMA or LSD. Drugs such as methamphetamine have also been associated with violent behavior and psychosis in emergency departments of hospitals, especially in association with prolonged sleep deprivation.
We do not have data comparing emergency services due to alcohol-related violence to those related to amphetamine-related violence. But we know that the total number of cases involving emergency services by amphetamines (stimulant drugs such as “glass”) is nothing compared to alcohol- related cases.
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The widespread use of alcohol
It is true that a key factor in this situation is the fact that alcohol is possibly the most widely accepted social drink in Western society. The most recent data show that approximately 80% of Australians over 14 years of age consumed alcohol during the past year, with 6.5% consuming alcohol daily.
While most people consider it a personal health and safety risk, research suggests that widespread use makes it the most harmful drug because of the impact it has on other people in terms of violence.
But most of the illegal drugs do relatively little that they are part of the western society and have been object of generalized prohibition more than of regulation. Therefore, it is not surprising that less and less people use them.
More recent data show that approximately 7.2 per cent of Australians over the age of 14 have used “ecstasy” over the past 12 months, 2.1 per cent have used methamphetamine and 1.3 per cent have used a psychedelic drug, Such as LSD.
What we would like to see happen?
What we really need is more research to confirm, regardless of damaging risk evident in other respects, that drugs like MDMA and LSD have a low potential to lead to violence compared to alcohol.
The media should be more accountable in the way they report on alcohol and other drugs, especially given the high rates of alcohol-related violence compared to violence linked to other drugs.
People who use illegal drugs are a minority and it is important that the media does not further marginalize this group through the use of stigmatizing words.
If no such changes are made, there will be few opportunities to discuss the implementation of a fact-based drug policy and Australia will continue to lag behind other Western countries in implementing harm reduction measures such as the analysis of tablets.
Authors: Stephen Bright, Senior Lecturer in Addiction Psychology at Edith Cowan University and Martin Williams, Postdoctoral researcher on Structural Biology and Medical Chemistry at Monash University
The authors are members of the committee of Psychedelic Research in Science and Medicine . They volunteered at the latest Rainbow Serpent music festival with DanceWize to provide help to festival goers who felt distressed, giving them a safe space to process their drug-induced experience.