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Book looks at society’s changing attitude about drugs

In 2007, scientists writing in the British medical journal the Lancet caused a stir when they ranked 20 often-abused drugs in terms of their degree of harm. Few readers had objections to the scientists’ naming heroin as the worst drug, or khat (a stimulant popular mostly in the Arab world) coming in as least dangerous. What raised hackles was their uncompromising evaluation that alcohol was worse than cannabis, which in turn was worse than LSD; and that the street version of the synthetic narcotic methadone was worse than any of them.

The scientists said they were trying to “help society to engage in a more rational debate about the relative risks and harms of drugs.” In her new book, Demons: Our Changing Attitudes to Alcohol, Tobacco and Drugs, Virginia Berridge aims to take this discussion deeper, looking at how public opinion of different substances has been affected by research, politics and social mores. The book tells a complicated tale involving opium dens and absinthe, Prohibition and medical marijuana, and offers fascinating insights for a world where teenage binge drinking, legal marijuana, anti-smoking fervor and e-cigarettes are in the headlines.

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