If addicts can’t afford alcohol they’ll turn to cheaper, more potent alternatives

When minimum pricing was announced my fellow students and I were, needless to say, upset that our Tesco value wine would no longer be so cheap.

It’s a temptingly simple idea; increase the price of strong and inexpensive booze and it will become unaffordable for problem drinkers. But there will be unintended consequences too. Addicts will naturally want to get the same bang for their buck when the new legislation comes in to effect in May. There will be an inevitable rise in drug use, particularly those drugs that make alcohol more potent.

For many alcoholics, minimum pricing could prove to be fatal. Not only will drug use and overdoses rise, but minimum pricing will also change the kind of alcohol they drink. As the IEA’s Christopher Snowdon recently said:

It is likely to lead to a shift from cider to spirits for dependent drinkers. A shift to the cheapest illegal drugs is also highly plausible among some groups, including young people.

Scotland has had a drug problem for decades, though it peaked during the 1980s. When I told people I would be moving to Leith many still associated the area with heroin and said it would be full of people like Mark Renton.

Scotland’s drug problem could get worse again when booze becomes prohibitively expensive for alcoholics – and the substances they will turn to this time are freely available on the NHS. It’s all too tempting to indulge when your dealer is your doctor.

The problem with mixing benzodiazepines and alcohol is that they are both depressants. They relax the muscles and central nervous system, and the interplay between them can be unpredictable. In many cases this leads to coma and death. Figures released in August show that, in Scotland, benzodiazepines were found in 49 per cent of overdose victims.

It’s easy to see how people get hooked; taking Valium is as easy as swallowing Skittles, and since tolerance builds quickly, within days or weeks the dosage required can rise dramatically. As Dr. Ian Hamilton, a substance abuse researcher at the University of York, puts it:

If you have been used to taking benzodiazepines at their usual strength and then you swap over to what are basically super-strength benzodiazepines, that can catch you out in terms of your threshold and tolerance.

To make matters worse, addicts don’t necessarily need to get a prescription from the GP.  Many people are now buying prescription pills online. It’s possible to order a packet of your favourite benzodiazepine without leaving the sofa.

Minimum pricing appears to be an idea with good intentions, but we could be opening Pandora’s Box. Raising the price of alcohol will only lead to desperate measures; legal highs, prescription pills and an increase in accidental overdoses. The legislation needs to be thought through again before even more people become statistics.