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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 2nd May 2012

There are a great many organisations with an interest in psychoactive substance use and they produce a great many reports either as one-offs or annually. I’m sure there are people who can read and digest every word of every one of these reports but I’m not one of them.

This means that I try and get the sense of one-off reports to determine which is worth reading in full and, with annual reports, I’ve found that some really don’t reward a full reading but are worth keeping for reference.

The International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) is one such. The latest report1 was published in March and I have, just, referred to it for the first time.

The INCSR is a sort of school report for the US President telling him who has been naughty and who has been nice when it comes to enforcing UN treaties resulting from the conventions on drugs. It mostly consists of a country by country analysis of 115 countries and is supposed to bear on how the US relates to the country concerned when it comes to offering aid or loans.

There is a difference in tone between country reports for places like The Netherlands and Portugal where the US disagrees with domestic policies but the report shies away from saying so and those for developing countries where the report is happy to say what domestic policy changes are required.

You’ll have realised by now that I find it a rather unpleasant document and that is one reason I only turn to it for specific information.

That happened when I noticed what you might call a trigger word on a website. I’ve explained before what I mean by a Red Nissan Micra moment. One of my long-standing triggers is the word ‘Zambia’ because I lived there for most of the 1970s and, whilst I don’t closer follow events there, I do pay attention if I come across a reference to the country.

I was looking at the announcement of a new report on alcohol promotion in Europe2 and the same page had a number of links to stories about alcohol one of which was the action of the Zambian government to ban Tujilijili.3 Tujilijili is the name given to small plastic sachets of high strength alcohol that have become popular in Zambia, and other African countries. Single sachets contain alcohol at about 40% ABV and were being sold for about £0.05-0.10 each. (A bottle of lager type beer costs about £1.)

Though there were widespread calls for the ban its implementation has resulted in protests from those involved in the manufacture and supply4 who argue that the immediate nature of the ban will cause them financial hardship and lead to job losses. These protests have turned into court action5 seeking to get the ban overturned.

Since the ban, it has been reported that a peasant farmer died after drinking eleven sachets in one go.6 Other deaths had been reported and they were thought to be a key factor in the ban.

Though promoted as convenient, easy to transport and without the bother of disposing of empty bottles7,8 the manufacturers are also explicit about the attractiveness of their products to the poor.9 Clearly, the purpose of these sachets is to get drunk quickly and cheaply and they are being used purely for their psychoactive effects. This makes them the direct equivalent of the illegal drugs.

That led me to turn to the INCSR report for 2012 to see what it had to say on the subject.  The answer to that is nothing. According to the INCSR, ‘Cannabis continues to be the primary drug abused in Zambia’. That follows the 2011 report that said ‘Cannabis is the most commonly consumed drug in Zambia’ and those exact words were also used in the 2010 and 2009 reports. In none of the reports is alcohol even mentioned.

In the 1970s, I worked for the Zambian subsidiary of a UK company. Binge drinking after payday was a well-known problem leading to absenteeism from work, domestic violence and poor family nutrition. What we didn’t know, at the time, was that it was also incubating an HIV epidemic as a result of the unsafe sexual practices brought about by drunkenness.

You cannot hope to make any progress in dealing with the problems associated with inappropriate use of psychoactive substances if you persist in making an arbitrary distinction between legal and illegal. 


1.2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report US Department of State March 2012
2.Commercial Promotion of Drinking in Europe EUCAM 25th April 2012
3.Government bans the sale and importation of Tujilijili Lusaka Times 15th April 2012
4.Tujilijili traders, drinkers, distributors protest Zambia Daily Mail 22nd April 2012
5.‘Tujilijili’ Battle Goes To Court UKZambians 1st May 2012
6.Man dies after drinking Tujilijili Times of Zambia 21st April 2012
7.Special Products
8.boss alcoholic beverages
9.Alcohol sachets 


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