Thursday, 31 December 2009

Shaikh’s death: how many would 4kg of heroin really kill?

On Christmas Eve this was part of the Chinese statement about the impending execution of Akmal Shaikh:
Akmal Shaikh was convicted and sentenced to death penalty for serious drug trafficking on solid evidence. In fact, 150mg of heroin of high degree of purity would be lethal. The amount of heroin he carried was 4030g, enough to cause 26800 deaths.
Of course, this is misleading claptrap and anyone with a firing neurone will raise an eyebrow at these numbers. It is possible to do a ‘back of an envelope’ calculation of how many deaths 4kg of heroin might cause.
Let’s imagine that the whole 4kg of heroin got through to London. In the UK purity runs at around 40% so by the time the heroin is cut with the usual crap then there might be approximately 10kg to sell. Now, generally heroin is sold in £10 bags and the NTA Treatment Outcome Profile form (used to monitor drug treatment in the UK) regards 0.2g as the equivalent of a street bag. The annual Drugscope survey suggested it is more likely to be about 0.15g but for this simple calculation we’ll stick with 0.2g heroin per bag. So, that gives us 10,000 grams or approximately 50,000 street bags.
I would suggest that a moderate heroin habit might be around 3 bags of heroin daily – that’s pretty middle of the road and possibly on the low side if anything. It would need around 46 users taking 3 bags per day for 365 days to use up the 4kg. Let’s say they eke it out a bit and we will round it up to a nice even 50 users.
The estimated mortality of heroin users is undeniably high. One study in Spain which followed a cohort of heroin users showed an annual mortality of 3.4%. However, a UK cohort study over 22 years in London gave an average annual mortality of 1.84%. For this calculation we’ll go for 2% – I suspect this is probably a bit on the high side; treatments have improved and the first study readily admitted that it had an unusually high mortality.
But we’ll go with it and a mortality of 2% works out at as one death in our notional cohort of 50 users smoking 3 bags daily until the 4kg of heroin is gone.
The statistic presented by the Chinese is clearly misleading. There is a bleak irony in Shaikh’s death by injection and in a stroke the Chinese have doubled the death toll attributable to 4kg of heroin.
Of course, this is all largely a side issue and the arguments around the death penalty seldom dwell on such a trite analysis of the numbers. Perhaps the Chinese (and certainly a large number of Daily Mail readers) may suggest justice is still served if there is a single death that can be blamed on drug smuggling. And I would readily agree that the wider costs of heroin addiction have a much wider impact.
However, we may not agree on how to manage the issue of drugs. If the Chinese are going to bandy around meaningless statistics to justify their tawdry policies then the numbers deserve some scrutiny.
Particularly when they are used to justify a grim act of abject inhumanity.
@'Northern Doctor'

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