Airmen And Amphetamines

Niall Cook posts about a doco on SBS which profiled the use of a stimulant drug by pilots in the United States Air Force. The drug in question is dextroamphetamine, or Dexedrine, an amphetamine derivative (not Speed, as Niall claims; Speed is a street name for either amphetamine or methamphetamine).

I happened to catch most of this documentary, which tried to draw a connection between dextroamphetamine usage and American mistakes such as the bombing of the wedding party in Afghanistan. Unfortunately they simply had no evidence for such a link. Their modus operandi was to talk for a while about the drug usage, quote an official as saying it was harmless, and then say “but some believe otherwise!” dramatically, while showing images of American mistakes, howling mothers and dead infants. Throw in a couple of interviews with blokes with shadowed faces and distorted voices spouting anecdotal evidence about taking drugs and losing control of themselves (this is WAR, do people expect to be perfectly calm during combat?) and you’ve got yourself a documentary.

It isn’t as though dextroamphetamine is an untested and dangerous drug. Contrary to Niall’s assertion that “One only needs to read any medication site to discover the devasting side-effects of use of these substances, and not simply in the long term”, Dexedrine is a drug that is commonly prescribed for ADD and narcolepsy and is FDA-approved for use by three year olds. Furthermore, the pilots are given only 10mg doses; for comparison, dosage recommendation for a 6-year-old with ADD is anywhere from 5 to 40 mg per day, and for over 18’s, 30 to 60 mg per day.

Niall goes on to say that pilots are essentially forced to take the drug, which is true enough, but so what? If a soldier is told he has to move into an area within range of enemy fire, he can’t refuse on the grounds that he might get shot. So why should a pilot be allowed to refuse an instruction to take a perfectly safe drug to ensure combat readiness? Someone who wants to have control over their own wellbeing in the workplace probably shouldn’t embark on a career in the armed forces.

The United States Air Force has never attributed an accident to the use of stimulants, whereas over 100 have been attributed to fatigue. Dextroamphetamine isn’t perfect and newer drugs like Provigil may prove to be better suited to the task, but allowing pilots to fly while fatigued would be irresponsible and wrong.

UPDATE: Niall has had a go at me on his blog. I can’t seem to post a comment on his blog, so I’m going to put my reply in the comments to this post.

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