Alcohol remains a popular poison

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Booze Is Montreal's most lethal drug. Province's committee to fight addiction releases a portrait of drug consumption

The Quebec government's permanent committee to fight drug addiction is about to tell a room full of reporters just how many drugs - legal and otherwise - Montrealers have been taking orally, intravenously or through the delivery system of rolling paper and a book of matches since 1999.

But if everybody and their microphone is ready to learn about what's new about heroin or cocaine or ecstasy, or whether it's time to rethink the marijuana laws, what surfaces from the committee's 49- page report is as uncomfortably familiar as the kick from a vodka shooter.

"Definitely, it's alcohol," says Michel Germain, the committee's general director, referring to the 11,500 hospitalizations a year in Montreal attributable to drugs.

"Overall, we're talking about 8,000 for alcohol, 2,000 for illegal drugs and 1,500 for legal drugs."

The proportion is less dramatic when it comes to divvying up the approximately 550 deaths attributed annually to addiction - 253 to alcohol, 117 to illegal drugs and 178 to cocktails of legal and illegal drugs -but it seems that, glass for glass, fields of barley are killing more people than those of poppies.

And they're doing their best trade among males age 20-24 who, according to the study, seem more likely than the rest of us to binge drink and develop a dependence on alcohol.

Slightly more Montrealers (81.7 per cent) in 2003 told researchers they took a drink than in 2002 (80.2 per cent), while the number who said they drank at least twice a week (40.1 per cent) increased last year from 35.4 per cent in 2002. Binge drinking - five glasses or more at a sitting - also seemed to be on the increase here, to 44.3 per cent in 2003 from 38.9 per cent a year earlier.

The report's figures, culled from statistics compiled by local hospitals, Statistics Canada, provincial and Montreal police, and the Quebec coroner's office, hunts and pecks through the years between 1999 and 2003, making it difficult to braid any particular trends out of so many threads.

They apparently back up committee chairperson Rodrigue Pare's assertion that the province needs a single body monitoring the fallout from drug abuse.

But it's an impressive body count nonetheless - one that, had it been racked up by the Hells Angels, would have seen police gunships hovering over every corner of the city.

But in an age where the War on Drugs has become as quaintly dated as the suits Don Johnson wore on Miami Vice, how do you take on alcohol - a mind-altering drug that's been around since the Old Testament and that, in 21st-century Quebec, is being peddled almost exclusively by the provincial government?

"I think the attention the government will pay will be directly proportional to the attention (the media) pay to it," Pare says.

"When there's no pressure, it's difficult to get the government's attention."

Pare, whose day job is running an alcohol rehab centre for adults, says 60 per cent of his clientele are male.

"But go to a centre for adolescents, and it's 50-50. And in the years to come, it will be 50-50 in all treatment centres. If you look at the ads for beer right now, you'll find a lot of women."

The idea behind the report was to produce a portrait of who are consuming which drugs, Pare says, adding that alcohol's coming to the fore may be the stimulus Quebec needs to put more into prevention programs aimed at a new generation of potential alcoholics.

Which may be a good thing, if only because "Please Drink Responsibly" seems on its way to being drowned out in the din of happy hour.