Lawmakers around the world "unjustifiably" treat illicit drugs as if they were a greater public health concern than alcohol, according to a report published online Wednesday in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

Alcohol is at least as harmful as illicit drugs, according to Jan van Amsterdam of the Laboratory for Health Protection Research in the Netherlands and psychiatrist Wim van den Brink at the University of Amsterdam. In their report, van Amsterdam and van den Brink call for a "more balanced drug policy" that focuses on harm reduction and doesn't neglect alcohol abuse.

All things considered, excessive alcohol consumption is more harmful to public health than illicit drug use, the two researchers said. However, this is due to "the high absolute number of problem drinkers," van Amsterdam told Raw Story in an email. "One should realize that if people would use marijuana or ecstasy as much as they drink alcohol, we would also have a significant problem."

Alcohol has been linked to neurological problems, cardiovascular disease, cancer, liver diseases, and gastrointestinal disorders. Additionally, alcohol has been associated with worker absenteeism, violent crime and relationship conflicts, among other social ills.

The two researchers noted that alcohol addiction was also a significant public health problem.

"Indeed, much more people (absolute number) have an alcohol disorder [compared to other substance abuse disorders], and 80-90 percent of those in addiction clinics are alcohol dependent subjects," Amsterdam told Raw Story. "Alcohol is potentially very addictive; as addictive as nicotine and heroin, though most people (quite a large number) manage to drink socially without relevant problems. So, we should not criminalize alcohol either."

When an expert panel in 2010 ranked alcohol, tobacco, and 17 other illicit drugs from most to least harmful, alcohol came in fourth place after crack cocaine, heroin, tobacco. The expert panel concluded that alcohol and tobacco were more harmful than many illegal drugs, with the exception of heroin and crack. A similar study, published in 2007, also found alcohol to be one of the most harmful recreational substances.

Yet, significant discrepancies exist between the scientifically-established harms associated with recreational drugs and their legal status. Two of the most harmful drugs, tobacco and alcohol, are legal, but less harmful drugs like marijuana and LSD are prohibited.

"[W]orldwide policy makers are primarily concerned about public health effects of illicit drug use and the prohibition of illicit drugs, whereas there is little political interest in the reduction of societal costs due to alcohol use," van Amsterdam and van den Brink wrote in their study.

From a public health perspective, van Amsterdam told Raw Story that prohibiting recreational drugs like marijuana is "more or less a waste of money."

"The focus must be harm reduction, not criminalization."

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[Alcoholic woman via Shutterstock]