Riding a horse is as dangerous as taking heroin

What’s wrong with the following argument?


P1. In the UK, heroin is a Class A drug.

P2. Ecstasy is also a Class A drug.

P3. The classification of a drug represents the level of harm it causes to individuals and society.

P4. Horse riding causes at least as much harm as ecstasy.

C. Therefore, horse riding is as harmful as heroin.


Suddenly, I have a new-found respect for Britain’s successful Olympic horse-dancing team. Who knew they were taking such risks?

The problem with the above argument is at premise 3.  The classification of a drug is supposed to represent the level of harm it causes, but in practice it doesn’t. Why not? Primarily because politicians ignore scientific evidence on drugs. They prefer to appear tough on drugs, in order to please the tabloids. The tabloids in turn significantly under-report deaths from drugs such as paracetemol (reporting approx 1 in every 250 deaths) compared to ones like ecstasy (reporting almost every single death).

This means the classification of a drug loses any value as a signal as to how harmful it is. You might as well take a Class A drug, because being Class A says nothing about how harmful it is.

Some people argue that no matter how harmful something is, as long as people are aware of the risks, then we should be allowed do whatever we want to our own bodies. This is a view I am sympathetic towards. However, as long as governments take the view that they should tell us what we can or cannot put in our bodies because of the harm it causes, at the very least they have a duty to ensure the law is consistent with such harm.


3 thoughts on “Riding a horse is as dangerous as taking heroin

  1. I feel I should raise two points here.

    Firstly, you haven’t consider the implications of addiction. I’d argue that the main problem with heroin and MDMA (etc.) relates more to dependency rather than the substance actually killing you.

    After all, ‘harm’ is about far more than ending a life and heroin (most strikingly) can put people in a far worse situation than death. Addiction isn’t a problem associated with horse-riding.

    Secondly, I’m unconvinced that ‘[politicians] prefer to appear tough on drugs, in order to please the tabloids.’. This seems far too simplistic and implies that a politician will place ‘tabloid opinion’ above ‘public welfare’; some might, most probably don’t.

    • Hey Matt; thanks for the comment!

      Professor David Nutt is the scientist who originally compared the harms of horse-riding with the harms of ecstasy. In this comparison, he considers addiction, and simply points out that the ‘addiction’ of horse-riding stems from the enjoyment it brings, meaning people want to keep doing it. However, ecstasy is clearly more psychologically addictive than horse-riding and he estimates around 1,000 people seek treatment for it each year, and another 1,000 are probably addicted without seeking treatment. But addictiveness is not the only harm he considers. He also considers social harm; horse-riding contributes to thousands of traffic accidents each year in the UK (e.g http://www.rospa.com/roadsafety/adviceandinformation/horseriders/default.aspx). When you include the long-term injuries sustained from falling off horses, the numbers add up to much more harm-per-use/ride than ecstasy.

      However, the point of my post wasn’t actually to compare horse-riding to ecstasy. It was to compare ecstasy with heroin to show the inconsistency even within illegal drugs. Even if more precise numbers revealed ecstasy to be slightly more dangerous than horse-riding, it is clearly not anywhere near as harmful as heroin. Yet ecstasy and heroin are both Class A. If heroin is Class A, then ecstasy, if it absolutely must remain illegal, should be Class B or C. A few years ago the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs recommended that ecstasy be downgraded to Class B. The Labour government ignored it. They also initially downgraded cannabis to Class C, but then reclassified it to Class B, again against the advice of the council. If this isn’t to please the tabloids and to appear tough, then it must stem from an ignorance of the facts.

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