Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A clergy of experts

Back in 1880, an international panel of experts called the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf in Milan. The vast majority of delegates had no hearing impediment whatsoever, and in spite of objections from the UK and US delegates, passed eight resolutions which would have devastating effects on the Deaf.

The first resolution declared the "incontestable superiority of articulation over signs in restoring the deaf-mute to society and giving him a fuller knowledge of language, declares that the oral method should be preferred to that of signs in the education and instruction of deaf-mutes."

The other seven resolutions followed from this point. Oralism, or lipreading, would be the only teaching method approved for the instruction of the Deaf. Contrary to the expert opinion, the dogma of lip-reading further isolated and persecuted Deaf people. General education for the Deaf lagged while rote memorisation of lip-reading took precedent. It took 99 years until this error in judgement was corrected. In 1979, sign language was finally allowed to be taught in the curriculum again.

I have other reasons for my antipathy towards inexperienced experts, but the Milan conference is one of my favourites. It sums up my fear and loathing towards ennobled do-gooders in a way the pope preaching on sex doesn't. After all, you can leave the Catholic Church, but you can't leave social policy.

I say all this to preface this Science Media Centre release on the possibility of banning pseudoephedrine. While I have immense respect for the PM's new science advisor, Sciblogs and the Science Media Centre in general, my bullshit detector is flashing eight and a half turds on this topic.

There are two slices of audio covering the topic. The first speaker, Dr Chris Wilkins from SHORE, provides some reasonable analysis. He pointed out that meth used peaked in 2001, and has levelled out since then, with around 5 percent of the NZ population having used meth in the last year (2006 figures).

He goes on to note that the average starting age for trying meth is 21, much later than other drugs such as alcohol, tobacco and cannabis. The average profile of a meth user is a 27 year old male, with a low academic and socio-economic background. Around two thirds of users have committed crimes to pay for their habit.

The economics behind this is simply tragic. As I pointed out at Red Alert some time ago:
And look at the cost structure of “P”. Codral, for example, costs three quarters of bugger [all] to make at the pharm level. It retails for about $12 at the chemists. Pharm shoppers are a rarity now as so much pours in from China (where we don’t have extradition treaties in place so that’ll never end). But what used to happen is that pack of Codral would be bought for $100 for the cook, who would make about one gram [of meth], which sold for $100 a point [0.1 gram].
Most of the crime associated with meth abuse is to pay the enormous margins which a black market product with high demand incurs.

Chris Wilkins draws attention to barriers that prevent meth users from accessing help with their habit. Negative police involvement is high on the list, as well as long waiting lists for treatment. This is unsurprising. The same problems exist in treating heroin users with methadone.

The next speaker is Dr Keith Bedford from the ESR talking about meth labs. I'm wary of any expert from the ESR, if for no other reason that they have been very fond of pushing their drug testing services to control freak parents, schools and workplaces in recent years.

However, I was quite surprised to hear Bedford admit that most of the pseudoephedrine and ephedrine used to make meth these days comes not from over-the-counter meds but directly imported from overseas. I was right all along.

Dr Peter Black clinical pharmacologist from Auckland University was next, who all but admitted that medications containing pseudoephedrine do help runny noses for cold sufferers, if not for hayfever. MacDoctor has provided more straight-forward advice on what works and what doesn't.

But my wrath is reserved for alleged expert Mike Sabin, the only speaker without a PhD on the podium. I'm glad I didn't have to sit through his Powerpoint slides. It was bad enough with headphones only. Former drug detective Mike Sabin is no Law Enforcement Against Prohibition supporter.

Thank Dagg some chick from the DomPost asked him outright whether he thinks pseudoephedrine should be banned in NZ. His demand reduction dogma barked madly. He admitted to a Radio Live guy that NZ has a mature meth market, and the worst is over. He admitted that there are different problems associated with that. Mike "Paradox" Sabin contradicted his straight old line.

But what REALLY annoys the bejesus out of me, is that there was no input from actual users of pseudoephedrine. Like the Hearing ordering the Deaf about, or the pope dictating the laws of sex, where were the consumer groups? No sniffling shift workers, no blocked-nose radio announcers, no old grannies sitting in cold misery. Where were the health treatment clinics such as CADS, who deal with the professional end users on a regular basis?

But I'll forgive the organisers. Stay tuned to the end of part two, where the DomPost chick leads a round of speculation on what John Key plans to do. The liklihood of becoming prescription only or an outright ban hung in the air like smoke.

Dr Chris Wilkins finishes with a much better idea than fiddling about with precursor prohibition. Get the ones who want help into treatment. Stop shorting the services that would really hit demand reduction effectively. Even Jim Anderton had to admit that truth with the Needle Exchange Clinics.

Stop punishing the majority and start taking care of the minorities. Stop treating health matters as criminal justice matters. Legalise drugs. It's cheaper on all fronts.