Alcohol 'more harmful than heroin' says Professor David Nutt, the former UK chief drugs adviser who was sacked by the government in October 2009. Try telling that to a former colleague of mine whose son was addicted to heroin.
Some years ago, when I was editor of Freedom Today, the Freedom Association magazine, I interviewed him (the ex-colleague) about his son's addiction. This is what he told me:
We knew my son was taking heroin. We didn't have proof but we'd speak to him on the phone and you could tell that he was high on something. I can't describe what's like when you discover that your child is injecting drugs. It's horrific, unbelievable. The worst part is the feeling of impotence. I've taken him into rehab twice. The first time he walked out within two hours and the second time he walked out the next morning.
Three hits a day [in 2001] costs £210 a week. To fund that sort of habit a heroin addict needs to steal and to my knowledge Stephen has been shoplifting for at least three years. As a result he's been in jail four or five times now and the consensus of opinion is that if he spent a prolonged period in prison - two or three years - that would have a material affect on his addiction. Instead shoplifting is classified as a 'misdemeanor' so he only gets four or five months and it's just a vicious spiral of drug taking, offending, imprisonment, re-offending and so on.
Visiting my son in prison was one of the worst things I've had to do as a father. But it seems to be worse for the mothers. They've nurtured them; they've done everything in their power to look after them until they become adults. Even now, when he comes to us for help, the first thing my wife does is cook him a meal because if he's got some food inside him at least he's going to be OK for a day or two.
Basically he's a good lad. In a normal frame of mind he wouldn't steal. It's against his nature to do it. He knows it hurts us and normally he wouldn't want to do that. We've pleased with him to do something about it but none of it works. The drug is more powerful than any other emotion he may have.
Although drugs are easily available in prison my son chooses not to take drugs when he is inside because he wants to get off them and he feels this is one way he can get clean. But as soon as he comes out he starts again. He's tried several times to do cold turkey but it never lasts more than three days. On the third day the craving for the drug is so strong that he just has to go out and get it.
A fortnight ago we told him he could no longer live at home and he has now left. That's the second time we've thrown him out of the house and we've done it because everyone says the only thing you can do with an addict is to leave them to get as low as possible and only when they get to their lowest ebb will they consider doing something about their habit.
My son has brought shame and humiliation on the family. We've got a rather unusual surname so when he gets caught for shoplifting dozens of people who know us see it in the paper. We've been tempted to move house but we've lived in the same town all our lives and we like it here.
Since this began my wife has suffered physically and I fight depression constantly. It's a living nightmare. His brother despises him. His sister feels very much like we do, very sad. You wake up every day and can't forget about it.
A lot of parents in our situation might disown their child but we don't think that's right. You're a parent for life and you want to protect them. We love our children and we love our son and we want to do the best for him.
There will be an end to it, I'm sure, but we're not there yet. The way I look at it, and the way everyone has told me to look at it, is that every time he reoffends we're a step nearer him coming off the drug because they all go through this spiral of re-offending until ultimately they do come off it.
Taking soft drugs is the start of a road to nowhere. You just take stronger and harder drugs. You may think you can handle it but I think there is a certain percentage of people who take drugs who can't cope and if you're one of those people you just go down and down and down.
My son is injecting heroin and that's as bad as it gets. We tell him about Aids, we try and frighten him out of it, but it doesn't do any good. He still carries on. If I could do something to get him off heroin I would do it today. But there's nothing I can do. It's down to him. That is the tragic thing about it.
If we had a choice, though, we would rather live with this than have him die. That would be terrible. That would too much to bear.
Alcoholism, I accept, is no laughing matter but alcohol 'more harmful than heroin'? Not in general, it ain't, especially when consumed in moderation. (Can you consume heroin in moderation? My understanding is that you can't because it is so addictive.)
Of course there have long been claims that nicotine is as addictive as heroin (Independent, 1998) but when was the last time you heard of a nicotine addict stealing to get the money to feed his next 'fix' and ending up in jail or putting his family through the experiences described above?
I rest my case.