Thursday, December 31, 2009

Stopping the illegal drug trade

Originally announced in 20081 as tougher rules on psuedoephedrine, John Key has since announced that you and I will be unable to obtain psuedoephedrine based cold cures without a prescription as a way of fighting the 'P' (Methamphetamine) crisis this country is undergoing. Sure, it will still be available on prescription, but while his wife may have nothing better to do than sit in a doctor's waiting room for an hour or so, normal people aren't going to the doctor for a cold. Normal people are going to be denied the one really effective treatment for the symptoms of the common cold.
Will it work to stop the 'P' scourge? Of course it won't work, most of the psuedoephedrine that gets into the illegal drug manufacturing business is smuggled across the border and that's why customs will be given 140 extra staff to try and stop the flow of this substance. Even so, customs are reported as saying "'It won't be enough if people still want it, what the Government strategy lacks is adequate demand reduction - preventing people from using the drug in the first place. Education, marketing and changing social norms - put money into that [because] the smart money is trying to steer people from using.'" 2
And there's one problem for the government. To the best of my knowledge, no black market has ever been stopped by going after the suppliers. Even having the death penalty for drug trafficking as happens in several Asian countries doesn't stop the trafficking, as long as there are addicts prepared to pay for the product, there will always be someone desperate enough or stupid enough to supply that market.
The only way to eliminate the illegal drug black market is to eliminate the demand, something that governments are unwilling to do. In November 2009, the UK government fired David Nutt, the chairman of their official advisory body on drugs because he told them what they didn't want to hear:
"IF THERE is one thing that politicians can and should do to limit the damage caused by illegal drugs, it is to take careful note of the evidence and develop a rational drug policy. Some politicians find it easier to ignore the evidence, and pander to public prejudice instead.

“I can trace the beginning of the end of my role as chairman of the UK's official advisory body on drugs to the moment I quoted a New Scientist editorial (14 February, p 5). Entitled, fittingly enough, 'Drugs drive politicians out of their minds', the editorial asked the reader to imagine being seated at a table with two bowls, one containing peanuts, the other the illegal drug MDMA (ecstasy). Which is safer to give to a stranger? Why, the ecstasy of course."3
And Nutt's actual offense? Repeating in public that there's substantial evidence demonstrating alcohol and tobacco to be far more harmful than either cannabis or ecstasy. Which is the other problem for the government (ours or the UK's), they can't or won't be rational about drug use. Politicians stand up pointing out that a drug addict needs to burgle houses or commit armed robberies to raise the $1,000 a week or so without apparently asking themselves why that addict is
  • Willing to pay $1,000 a week for the drug, and
  • Forced to pay that much
The word "Addict" comes from the Latin word addictio referring to a slave. An addict is literally enslaved to the drug and will go to huge lengths to obtain the drug. Exactly why people become addicted to some drugs such as Methamphetamine, opiates, and nicotine involves brain chemistry and although fascinating is beyond the scope of this blog.

Answering the second part is easier than the first. The addict needs to pay $1,000 for drugs that probably netted 3 or 4 dollars for the original grower somewhere in the third world because of a combination of the massive drug enforcement regimes by our government (and similar governments overseas) and a ruthlessly enforced monopoly by the illegal drugs cartels.

If the government wants to stop drug use, their only option is to ruthlessly go after the users. Lock them up in rehabilitation until they are "clean" and if they relapse, lock them up again. Keep doing this until they choose to stay clean. Deprived of the users, the criminal gangs will soon switch to other black market activities. I doubt that our government has the guts to do this, so the addicts will continue to consume drugs.

The other part of the equation is that $1,000 a week, per addict, going into the crime cartels. If you want to stop that without forcing the addicts to stop buying drugs, the answer is simple: Supply the addicts with clean, pure, drugs at a reasonable cost. The UK has done this off-and on for decades with heroin. When they are brave enough to supply addicts with medical morphine, crime goes down, when they force the addicts back into the black market, crime goes up. The addicts don't go away, and when they are being supplied through the black market, the black market exists and has "samples" for potential customers.

I wish our politicians would acquire the strength to face up to the facts about drugs and stop the hysterical, usually meaningless, and ultimately futile efforts they make against the supply side ... the demand side is where you need to focus your efforts.

1Tougher rules to combat 'P', New Zealand Herald November 2008

2 Drugs will keep coming – customs, New Zealand Herald 8 2009

Friday, December 18, 2009

Why your boss is incompetent

Brilliant article from Why your boss is incompetent - life - 17 December 2009 - New Scientist. The Peter Principle which in my experience is just soooo true and here is an explanation of why it works:

"Jobs generally get more difficult the higher up any ladder you climb, most people only come equipped with a more or less fixed level of talent that corresponds to their intelligence, knowledge and energy. At some point, then, they will be promoted into a job they can't quite handle. They will, as Peter and Hull put it, 'reach the level of their own incompetence'. And there they will stay, fouling up operations until they either retire or some egregiously inept act gets them fired.

"The problem is what they get up to in the meantime. "They end up distracting us from their crummy work with giant desks," says Robert Sutton of the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California. "They replace action with incomprehensible acronyms, blame others for failure, and cheat to create the illusion of progress." Meanwhile, Peter and Hull concluded, the actual work gets done by those who have not yet scaled the summit of their own incompetence. That would be you and me, then."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Alcohol and sports sponsorship don't mix

"Alcohol and sport make unhappy bedfellows and sports sponsorship by drinks companies should be banned, say a group of public health researchers.

"They have previously found that such sponsorship – which often includes free drinks – is linked to alcohol problems in athletes."

New Scientist

I was reading this while having a nice glass of Cabernet Merlot as I delay rescuing my PCs that got trashed in an operating system upgrade gone wrong and it got me to thinking about the beer sponsorship of some of our elite sports teams ... I won't name them, but you know who I mean ... teams that are know as much for poor behaivour off the field as they are for being world beaters on the field.

Monday, November 9, 2009

John's key to hiding Rodney and honing Harawira

There's a lot of fuss at the moment about Rodney Hide and Hone Harawira misusing the parliamentary travel perks for private benefit. The media had a go at Chris Carter a while back, but when they were challenged that had he been heterosexual they wouldn't have done this they went quiet. Having carefully checked that both Hide and Harawira are heterosexual they decided that they could bay for blood over much lesser amounts.

All humour apart, Rodney Hide's infraction was particularly galling to many as he has publicly stood up a "perk buster" for a few years and was specially vigorous in that role before he took over as leader of ACT. It used to really gall me that he was going on and on with a populist line more fitting of Winston Peters than a party of principle like ACT, but to be fair the press wasn't reporting ACT except for Rodney, so it was a way of getting some publicity however bad.

On the other hand, Hide was merely using a benefit that is part of his employment package. It's really no worse than airline staff using the travel perks they get or bank staff and their cheap mortgages, if these still exist.

Hone Harawira was sent to Brussels for some kind of meeting with officials of the European Parliament. Don't ask me why they made the trip, but Europe is a very important trading partner and any improvement in relationships can only be good, so even if it was a touchy feelie thing, it's still of benefit to New Zealand. The only problem is that Harawira decided to bunk off from the last day of the trip and go to Paris to try and solve the Da Vinci code. When this was discovered he is supposed to have sent a private email couched in very offensive terms to another party member. Normally I wouldn't condone racist outbursts like that, but in this case it was a private email to another member of the Maori party, and should have stayed private. In other words it was a beat-up.

There's a big fuss at the moment, but it will all blow over after a bit for a few reasons and Harawira will not be expelled from the party nor punished in any meaningful way. The main one is that although it is a racially organised party, the Maori party is pluralistic and diverse party and not some kind of Nationalsozialistische Maori Arbeiterpartei. While other parties such as ACT or The Greens can appeal to a narrow economic or social segment of the population, Maori cover the range of demographic groups from Kaumātua and Kuia like the highly educated, urbane Pita Sharples and the grandmotherly Tariana Turia to the opposite extreme; and the Maori party has to find how to appeal across that huge diversity. Harawira does appeal to the economically disadvantaged Maori in a way that neither Sharples nor Tariana Turia will. The NZ Herald has just published a "Marae-DigiPoll survey" about Maori attitudes to the Maori party and other Maori politicians that shows that the three most popular Maori politicians are Sharples 33%, Turia 16%, and Harawira 6.4%.

Rodney Hide needs to make serious attempts of eating humble pie and repairing his reputation ... either that or he needs to go. ACT is a party of principle and must live or die by those principles. It's no excuse that members of the tired old centrist duopoly had their rorts ... nobody expects otherwise of them. It's no excuse that the Greens used their pension scheme for their rental scheme ... for all the ecological rhetoric, the Greens are a doctrinaire socialist party and still hold with Lenin's slogan "Expropriate the expropriators" and although many Maori deplore the ripping of of the system, others have been raised on an attitude of dependency and see nothing wrong with ripping off the government.

Hone Harawira is quite safe, as long as his support remains a lot less than theirs, Sharples and Turia won't touch him as they need him, or someone so like him to make no difference, to appeal to the minority segment of Maoridom he holds for the party. They'll make tut-tutting noises, but they are both to clever to alienate him or his electorate. Nor should they, their party is supposed to represent Maori and Maori interests and that means trying to appeal to all Maori. As John Key put it recently in a different context, Parliament needs diversity in order for the House of Representatives to actually be Representative.

Study trashes anti-tagging policies

NZ Herald News reports: "Taggers have trashed initiatives aimed at preventing graffiti, saying it just encourages them to keep vandalising private and public spaces.

New research aimed at understanding offender motivation may have implications for policy-makers and other agencies."

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Driving with cellphones

I'm writing this in the closing few minutes of October 2009 and by the time I finish it will be November. On November 1st it becomes illegal to use a hand-held mobile phone while driving. The penalty will be a modest $80 fine and 20 demerit points.

We've been getting the usual propaganda for the last few months on how it is unsafe to phone and drive. The message has been paid adverts and an endless succession of reportage from tame journalists echoing the official line. The figures that keep being repeated are 4 times more likely to have an accident while talking on the phone and that it is as dangerous to use a mobile phone while driving as it is to drink and drive.

If this is true, why on earth is the penalty so low? Or to put that another way why are our politicians so gutless about this?

There's only a very few options here:

  • It isn't as dangerous as is claimed (Please note I'm not disputing that it's dangerous)
  • Driving under the influence of alcohol isn't as dangerous as claimed. (Again, I don't believe this)
  • As alcohol is a drug, our politicians are wanting to punish it more for moral reasons
  • Our politicians are too gutless to take road safety seriously.
My money's on a combination of the last two; but I've been wrong before.

Whatever the truth of the matter, we have an appalling road toll in New Zealand and it's about time that the authorities started taking enforcing the road laws seriously.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

2009 Mount Albert By-election

Former prime minister Helen Clark resigned her seat in parliament to take a top job with the United Nations forcing a by-election in the Mount Albert electorate. The election is scheduled for June 13th.

Labour initially considered themselves the front runner to win and selected someone who isn't already in parliament while the other parliamentary parties with list MPs have selected an existing list MP.

Realistically the contest is between Labour and National's Melissa Lee. Melissa is well known as a previous presenter on TV One's Saturday morning show Asia Down Under and then the government announced that a motorway would be built through the electorate and Melissa opened her mouth with a silly comment about criminals from South Auckland. Now things are looking grim for her.

The more important minor parties except New Zealand First and The Maori Party are represented, but on current polling it would take a miracle for any of them to take the seat.

Other than bragging rights the election will have little real effect. The National led coalition government will still have the numbers to form a government and win or lose Labour will still have enough members to form a realistic opposition party. If a miracle did happen and United Future's Judy Turner won, they could still hold their caucus meetings in a phone box.

I suspect that even bragging rights are going to be minimal. If Labour's majority is reduced, they'll just claim it's the loss of Clark's personal support, and if National's support is reduced they'll say it was because of the unfortunate timing of the motorway announcement and the super city proposal. Without the list vote, the minor parties are irrelevant and it's to be expected that their support will collapse towards the end.

We can expect ongoing talk on the news channels about it whenever there is a slow news day, but even a keen follower of politics like myself finds it difficult to get enthusiastic about this election.

Originally published on Qondio

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Doctors Overcharging Tourists

Recently a scam being perpetrated on tourists by New Zealand doctors has come to light and has received publicity on NZ television.

In Aotearoa / New Zealand our medical service is partially funded by charges made to the patients and partially funded from taxes. Hospital care at public hospitals is free for New Zealand citizens and permanent residents and depending on circumstances, half or more of the costs of visits to general practitioners is covered by the government for New Zealand citizens and residents.

Usually tourists have to pay the entire cost of their medical care and are expected to have travel insurance to cover the cost, but because of two treaties, one between NZ and Australia and the other between NZ and the United Kingdom, tourists from those two countries are entitled to receive medical care here on the same basis as New Zealanders and kiwis touring in those countries are entitled to receive medical care on the same basis as locals.

At the practical level, this all means that when tourists (other than British or Australians) visit a general practitioner or an after hours medical service they get charged a higher rate than locals. Recently a young woman from England was visiting here when she got sick. She needed ongoing treatment and visited several doctors as she continued her travels around the country until she visited a doctor who charged her a lot less than the other doctors had charged her. Thinking that the doctor had made a mistake she queried the charge and when she did, the story came out. The final doctor had correctly applied the subsidy and charged her the same as she would have charged a local.

I suppose the story would normally have ended there, but the honest doctor was so incensed by the poor treatment the young English woman had received that she went to the media. Naturally the overcharging doctors refused to talk to the television reporters and we can assume that they will continue to do this.

There's a lesson in here, one that will be hard to get out. If you're an international tourist you need to have travel insurance and medical insurance is part of that, but you also need to find out in advance what the rules and common practices are at your destination. If you're an Australian or Briton coming to New Zealand, remember that you are expected to pay the same as locals.

Originally published on Qondio

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Drug Use and Crime

Every looked at the court pages in the newspaper? Have you noticed how often the people in the courts for violent crimes are drug addicts? These days in Aotearoa New Zealand it's largely "P" (Meth amphetamine), but a few years back it was heroin. It makes sense for "P" users to be violent, but ever wonder why a sedative would make people violent criminals?

The answer is very simple. If you're addicted to a drug, you have to have it on a regular basis. If it's an illegal drug you have to get it from the black market, if you're getting it from the black market you are going to pay an outrageously inflated price. If you're a manual worker with a $500 / day habit there is no way you are going to make that money legitimately.

What's worse, the profits from that illegal drug trade go straight to the criminal gangs. Ever watched the Sopranos? If you didn't it tells the tale of a fictitious New Jersey, US, Mafia "Family". The series concentrated on the murders and interplay between the gangsters, but always in the background were the ways they raised their money. They make money from hijackings, gambling, loan sharking, prostitution and they make a lot of money from drugs both directly by dealing in them and indirectly by "taxing" other illegal activities in their area. Women turning to prostitution to finance their drugs pay protection, and so forth.

Here in New Zealand, the drug trade is firmly in the hands of the gangs and in any area one gang has a monopoly, they just set the price at what ever they want and every time there is an illegal drug purchase the gangs profit.

So what can we do?

History teaches us that simply prohibiting drugs doesn't work. As long as there is a market, someone will step up to supply that market. In the USA prohibition failed because there was a market for alcohol and the Mafia stepped in and had that market. As long as I can remember, there has been an attempt to deal with drugs in the same was as the US dealt with alcohol, and it simply hasn't worked. It's just made the criminal gangs richer than they could ever imagine.

Some people suggest "decriminalizing" drugs in the hands of the users. That would be worse than what we have now. It would still be illegal to sell them and so the supply and distribution would remain in the hands of the criminals. It would probably increase use and give them even more money.

To stop more people becoming hooked on addictive drugs we have to stop the criminals from running their distribution networks, and the only way we are likely to achieve that is to stop people buying from them. Once they stop making money from drugs, the criminals will move onto something else. That's right, to end the drug black market we have to stop people buying drugs from the black market.

There's really only two options for doing this, and neither of them are particularly nice. We either need to stop people using drugs, or we need to legally supply addicts with the drugs they crave.

Information campaigns haven't stopped drug use, so the only way I can see to stop addicts using drugs is to get them off the streets: compulsory rehab on a huge scale and if that doesn't work we send them back again and again until they are clean. Somehow I can't see this being at all popular.

The other option is to supply addicts with maintenance supplies of their drugs. Until 1968 Britain did exactly this with heroin (Wikipedia), if you could prove to a specialist doctor that you are an addict and you don't intend giving up you could get a prescription to get your heroin from a pharmacy. While they were doing this it worked quite well, unfortunately (as I understand it) it was only for opiates, and it was politically unpalatable so the scheme was always being fiddled with. Starting from the late 1960s they kept changing their approach and the black market came back to life. Some other European countries are experimenting with it.

I think it's time we tried this, and not just for heroin. We need to accept that the addicts of both opiates and stimulants are going to continue being addicts and move to a sensible solution that will stop them having to lead lives of prostitution or crime to pay huge amounts to the illegal gangs to finance their habits.

Originally published on Qondio

Monday, April 6, 2009

Three Strikes Law

There's an old joke that goes
Two mathematicians are having coffee at a table outside their local cafe. While they are there they see two men walk into the empty building opposite and after a while three men leave. The mathematicians look at each other puzzled until one says "If someone else goes in it will be empty again."
Obviously there's more going on than the mathematicians want to admit, they didn't consider the possibility that there may have already been someone in the apparently empty building, or perhaps there is another entrance they can't see. Either way, the mathematicians are obviously experiencing flawed logic in their attempt to preserve their original beliefs and their proposed solution makes little sense.

The currently proposed law to send people to jail for 25 years on their third major crime suffers from the same type of flaws. Our prisons are full to the point of overflowing and the government is having to spend a lot of money on new prisons or working out how to get more people into the current ones. This law will only add to the number of people in our prisons, consuming tax payer dollars and adding noting back to society.

To me the logic flaw is so obvious I don't understand why nobody is pointing it out. Serious criminals don't happen overnight, they start out as petty criminals and get away with it. It's just human nature to always press against the boundaries, and for over a generation we have been pretty much ignoring the petty crimes. At the bottom of the heap is graffiti vandalism and general loutishness by children and teens. Even if they are caught nothing is done, so they do it again, nothing happens, and they keep going, gradually getting worse.

Soon they are in youth gangs and things just get worse. Burglaries, stand-over tactics, violence yet they are still under age and the police and youth courts effectively do nothing. When they become of age, judges start giving them minor penalties ... community service that they don't perform and fines they never pay.

Sooner or later they put someone in hospital, do an armed robbery, or kill someone. Finally something is done, but by now the criminal associates only with other criminals, are regarded as a "big man" for their criminal level and as soon as they are on the street again they go back to their life of crime.
At this point, after dozens of burglaries (hundreds of houses burgled if they are drug addicts), dozens of peoples lives ruined the Three Strikes rule would finally kick in and they will be gone. For every habitual criminal removed by this, there will be plenty of people waiting to step into their place in the criminal underworld.

Just like the mathematicians that can't understand where the third man came from, our politicians can't seem to understand that these adult criminals came from somewhere.

Wouldn't it make much more sense to stop the offending early. Take the young graffiti vandals and kids who do minor theft and give them an appropriate punishment. No I don't mean throw them in the cells with adult offenders, I mean give them a penalty that will make them think twice about doing it again; and what's more let them know that if they do it again, next time it will be worse.

Surely a lot cheaper than building more prisons.

Originally published on Qondio

Friday, February 20, 2009

The mystery of Ireland's worst driver

BBC NEWS Ireland's worst driver:

Police in the Irish Republic finally caught up with Mr Prawo Jazdy, the country's worst driver, after they sought him from north to south for score of unpaid speeding and parking fines. Finally an ordinary copper in the Garda's national headquarters sent a letter

He had been wanted from counties Cork to Cavan after racking up scores of speeding tickets and parking fines

"Prawo Jazdy is actually the Polish for driving licence and not the first and surname on the licence," read a letter from June 2007 from an officer working within the Garda's traffic division.

Given that Poles are Ireland's largest immigrant population, it says something about how Irish Police are trained and communication gets to the ordinary plod on the street.

Can you see any parallels with how our police are trained?


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