For thousands of years ethanol, or alcohol as it is more commonly known, has been used as a recreational drug in most cultures. In New Zealand it is legal, it is advertised and it can be purchased from the age of 18.

Now researchers from the National Addiction Centre (NAC), Christchurch, and the Medical Research Institute, Wellington, have carried out an analysis which suggests ethanol would probably be classified as a B1 (high risk) drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1975) if the same standards were applied to it as other drugs.

"We're not suggesting that alcohol should be prohibited," says the director of the NAC, Professor Doug Sellman. "What we're doing is putting alcohol into perspective, in relation to prohibited recreational drugs, and raising issues about evidence-based criteria for assessment."

Sellman and his Wellington colleagues compared ethanol with another liquid sedative drug, gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), commonly called Fantasy, which has previously been scheduled as a class B1 (high risk) drug under the Act.

Using the six criteria for classification under the Misuse of Drugs Act, they found that the danger and risk to public health of alcohol is at least at the level of GHB and, in fact, could be argued to be a somewhat more dangerous drug than GHB, or Fantasy, in an overall perspective.

Sellman says the results of this research highlight the limitations of the drug classification undertaken in New Zealand and other western countries when alcohol and tobacco, the drugs we know most about, are excluded from consideration.