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.