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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 2nd September 2011

So, it’s autumn. As far as I’m concerned it is, anyway. I would expect different people to have different views on what constitutes the start of autumn. In England, for families, it may well be the start of the new school term in the next few days. In Scotland, of course, the new term started back in the middle of August and that’s a bit early to be considered autumn.

Colchicum autumnale, autumn crocus

Colchicum autumnale, autumn crocus

For me, my first talk of the season tells me summer is over and, in a normal year, I would have added ‘and it’s all downhill from now’. This year, however, there really has been so little pleasant weather that I don’t think there’s any hill left to do down. Incidentally, I’m not alone in thinking autumn has arrived as the picture, taken this morning, of my autumn crocuses, Colchicum autumnale, attests.

Still, you have to find things to look forward to so I was very pleased that my talk was well received because I can look forward to the others to carry me through the winter. This first talk was ‘Medical Murderers’ and it was proved so popular that I was immediately asked to return, next September, and a good proportion of the audience bought a copy of ‘Is That Cat Dead?’ afterwards.

But, I didn’t start this blog entry just to sound boastful and self-promoting. It was, as often happens, the coincidence of two events that triggered this train of thought. Having a cup of tea and, too much, homemade cake after the talk someone asked the direct question ‘Do you think cannabis is dangerous?’ The question proved what I’ve thought for a long time; that as the ‘60s generation grows into middle and older age the discussion of drugs will become more open.

Since it was an honest direct question I gave the most direct answer possible, ‘No’ and waited to have to defend that. Instead my questioner said ‘Nor do I’ and the other women sitting within earshot also agreed that the simple line that cannabis is harmful for anyone doesn’t seem to stand up to scrutiny.

The coincident event that sprang to mind was the part of a daytime phone-in programme that I’d seen that morning. The UK Daily Mirror used a freedom of information request to discover that, in the past four years, 2,789 members of the UK’s armed forces had been dismissed after testing positive for illegal substances. It appears that most, if not all, of these tests were on personnel reporting for duty after a period of leave. The question the TV show posed was whether it was right to destroy someone’s military career just because they smoked a couple of joints when they were on leave. The host also suggested that, given the stress of serving somewhere like Afghanistan, it might be understandable if some people liked to use drugs on leave.

To try and put the numbers in context, in early 2009 there were just over 187,000 people in fulltime service in the UK’s armed forces. If the tests detected all drug users then the 700 a year average for the four years gives an annual prevalence of 0.37% against the 8.8% for the general population. Put another way, if the tests only detected 1 in 20 of all forces drug users, that would still give an annual prevalence below the rest of the population.

The questions asked by the TV show were, of course, framed to provoke a response. One caller, a former soldier, who agreed with the dismissals, said that though going on patrol in Afghanistan was stressful he’d always found that all he needed to relieve the stress was to get back to camp and have a couple of beers and take it easy.

One of the guests on the show, also supporting the ‘zero tolerance’ line, said that you couldn’t send soldiers out on patrol if they worried that the guy behind them was affected by his drug use and couldn’t offer proper protection.

Since I didn’t have time to call in and I managed to resist the urge to throw a brick at the TV screen, I thought I’d blog about the sheer stupidity demonstrated by these two individuals and the Ministry of Defence as a whole.

Service personnel are at risk of losing their jobs if a joint they smoked some days ago, when on leave, shows up in a drug test when they return to duty but not only are they not tested for their alcohol use, on leave, they are supplied with alcohol in their barracks. You would think that just about anyone would see the rank hypocrisy in trying to justify a policy based on the effects of intoxication whilst sanctioning the use of an intoxicant.

When I thought about this, I realised that it is one of those beliefs, or rather two of those beliefs, that are deeply entrenched in people’s minds. Challenge most people about the harms that alcohol can cause and the problems of intoxication and they will say that it is only the minority that consume too much alcohol and that, whilst clearly drink should be avoided where its use could result in harm to others, such as when driving, there is nothing to fear in allowing anyone, over 18, to have a couple of drinks.

Challenge most people about cannabis use and they will assume that the majority situation is that users are putting themselves and others at risk and that they cannot be trusted to control their usage to avoid that. I don’t know what it will take to get people to treat all intoxicating substances the same way i.e. that there is very little risk in low level consumption for recreational purposes when not engaged in work or other activities requiring concentration. But it, probably, requires that change before politicians will dare to acknowledge that the present prohibition regime is deeply flawed.

Perhaps as the population ages more of the post-war generations will stand up and say they have not been harmed by their young adult drug use though they will also need to recognise the lie that says that cannabis, today, is not the same as it was in the ‘60s.