THE POISON GARDEN website      Arum maculatum berries on a Cannabis leaf 


This free script provided by JavaScript Kit

Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 6th January 2012

I started out to write this entry about two completely disparate items I’ve read that have a common theme but I now have to add a third showing that the shared hope of the first two is already being subverted.

This is a story about what’s wrong with the way we discuss issues, what could be done to put it right and why people who don’t want sensible discussions are already undermining that solution.

I’ll start with the subject furthest away from my normal concerns, both physically and intellectually; dairy farming in Australia. Since my Google alert for ragwort, Jacobaea vulgaris, took me to it some months ago, I’ve been a regular reader of The Milk Maid Marian blog. This entry about the different opinions of vegans and dairy farmers struck me as having a much broader relevance. She quotes another writer on this topic who says there is ‘an “us vs. them” mentality that limits the opportunity for meaningful discussion about complex food issues’.

At the risk of sounding as though I blame the media for everything, I do think that the notion that news is entertainment has a lot to answer for. TV, especially, wants two people with absolutely fixed views at the extreme opposite ends of any subject to harangue each other and make outrageous claims. I’d love to hear someone say ‘That’s a very good point. I’ll have to rethink my position’ but that won’t happen for as long as issues are ‘debated’ by those who aren’t even listening to the other’s view.

This, it seems to me, leads to people making their pronouncements more extreme because they realise that is the only way to get airtime and that point came across in a paper I read about drug policy in Portugal.

In 2001, Portugal stopped prosecuting people for simple possession of substances covered by the UN Single Convention and, instead, diverted users into healthcare or education programmes. Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of interest in what such a policy delivered and a number of studies have been made of the results.

Now a new paper by Caitlin Hughes & Alex Stevens looks at two reports, written by people at opposite ends of the drug policy debate to see if either of the claims made - that Portugal’s policy has been ‘a resounding success’ or ‘a disastrous failure’ – is justified by the available data.

I’m not intending to summarise the whole paper so I’ll just say that Hughes and Stevens conclude that both the report written by G Greenwald for the libertarian Cato Institute and the work of M Pinto Coelho for the Associação para uma Portugal livre de drogas (Association for a Drug Free Portugal), a prohibitionist body, overstate their conclusions by cherry-picking data to suit their pre-existing stance on the issue and, in some cases, stating as fact that which is not. Greenwald, for example, says that Portugal had the ‘absolute lowest lifetime prevalence rates for cannabis [in Europe]. . .’ when three European countries have lower rates. Pinto says that Portugal had the highest number of new cases of HIV in Europe amongst injecting drug users but omits that, for the period chosen, data from two countries with much higher rates in previous periods is not available.

Hughes & Stevens’ paper will be dismissed by the prohibitionists because both authors have ‘form’ for calling for changes in drug policy and because their overall conclusion is that Portugal’s policy change has been positive but not the ‘resounding success’ claimed by the Cato Institute.

But, the central point of the paper is that debate on issues should take place in the centre where it may be harder to claim clear dominance of one policy over another. They also point out the danger of claiming to want policy to be evidence based if it can be shown by opponents that you are distorting or over-stating the evidence. For prohibitionists, destroying the credibility of evidence destroys the argument for evidence-based policy.

Then, just as I was punching the air at this vindication of my view that you should not overstate any issue, whether it is the potential for mass poisonings caused by ricin from Ricinus communis or the number of horse deaths resulting from Jacobaea vulgaris, ragwort, or the effects of psychoactive substances, I came across this commentary about this piece from the New York Times.

The NYT op-ed piece was written by Kevin A. Sabet who was a senior adviser in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2011 and now describes himself as a drug-policy consultant. On his own website Sabet says ‘I have argued stridently against legalization’ and, last October, at the time of the broadcast of Ken Burns’ documentary ‘Prohibition’, Sabet wrote a piece for The Los Angeles Times arguing that alcohol prohibition wasn’t all bad.

In his latest piece, Sabet tries to position himself as in the centre of the argument about drug policy. He tries to position a number of former US Presidents, who have fully supported and even increased the ‘war on drugs’ as moderates so that he can place himself in that category. And he condemns the way the discussion on drug policy is between extremists on both sides. As David Sirota’s excellent commentary points out, Sabet’s piece is full of terms like ‘moderate’ and ‘centrists’ and says that policy mustn’t be in ‘the hands of extremists’ in order to try and get across his ‘moderate’ credentials.

Yet, for me, anyone who still says the criminal justice system has a vital role in reducing the harm caused by drugs is very far from being moderate.

I heard Billy Bragg, the left-wing songwriter and campaigner, say the other day that the language of Marx is no longer useful but the issues remain the same. It seems Kevin Sabet has recognised that the language of extreme prohibition is no longer useful and has moderated it to slip under the radar.

Those of us who hope for issues to be discussed sensibly will regret that the centre ground is being hijacked by extremists who know that their arguments are increasingly being questioned.


Full Entries


Tuesday 25th October 2016
Saturday 20th August 2016
Sunday 6th March 2016
Wednesday 3rd February 2016


Saturday 28th November 2015
Friday 27th November 2015
Monday 17th August 2015
Wednesday 15th July 2015
Friday 26th June 2015
Thursday 25th June 2015
Thursday 30th April 2015
Wednesday 29th April 2015
Wednesday 11th March 2015
Tuesday 3rd March 2015
Saturday 28th February 2015
Sunday 22nd February 2015

November 2014

Monday 24th November 2014
Saturday 8th November 2014

October 2014

September 2014

Wednesday 24th September 2014
Monday 1st September 2014

August 2014

Tuesday 26th August 2014
Saturday 16th August 2014
Tuesday 5th August 2014
Friday 1st August 2014

July 2014

Sunday 27th July 2014
Wednesday 23rd July 2014
Sunday 13th July 2014
Sunday 6th July 2014
Tuesday 1st July 2014

June 2014

Wednesday 25th June 2014
Tuesday 24th June 2014
Sunday 22nd June 2014
Monday 9th June 2014
Wednesday 4th June 2014

May 2014

Monday 26th May 2014
Sunday 18th May 2014
Wednesday 14th May 2014

April 2014

Sunday 13th April 2014
Saturday 5th April 2014
Thursday 3rd April 2014
Tuesday 1st April 2014

March 2014

Monday 31st March 2014
Tuesday 25th March 2014
Friday 21st March 2014
Monday 17th March 2014
Sunday 16th March 2014
Tuesday 11th March 2014
Tuesday 11th March 2014
Thursday 6th March 2014
Wednesday 5th March 2014
Saturday 1st March 2014

February 2014

Thursday 27th February 2014
Monday 24th February 2014
Wednesday 19th February 2014
Monday 17th February 2014
Thursday 13th February 2014
Monday 4th February 2014
Monday 3rd February 2014
Saturday 1st February 2014

January 2014

Thursday 28th January 2014
Thursday 23rd January 2014
Friday 17th January 2014
Wednesday 15th January 2014
Monday 13th January 2014
Thursday 9th January 2014
Tuesday 7th January 2014
Wednesday 1st January 2014

December 2013

Monday 23rd December 2013
Friday 20th December 2013
Tuesday 17th December 2013
Friday 14th December 2013
Thursday 12th December 2013
Sunday 8th December 2013
Wednesday 4th December 2013
Sunday 1st December 2013

November 2013

Friday 29th November 2013
Wednesday 27th November 2013
Tuesday 26th November 2013
Friday 22nd November 2013
Monday 18th November 2013
Friday 15th November 2013
Thursday 14th November 2013
Sunday 10th November 2013
Thursday 7th November 2013
Wednesday 6th November 2013
Friday 1st November 2013

October 2013

Thursday 31st October 2013
Sunday 27th October 2013
Wednesday 23rd October 2013
Monday 21st October 2013
Friday 18th October 2013
Friday 11th October 2013
Wednesday 9th October 2013
Tuesday 8th October 2013
Monday 7th October 2013
Tuesday 1st October 2013

September 2013

Monday 30th September 2013
Saturday 28th September 2013
Friday 27th September 2013
Monday 23rd September 2013
Sunday 15th September 2013
Monday 9th September 2013
Tuesday 3rd September 2013
Sunday 1st September 2013

August 2013

Sunday 8th September 2013
Tuesday 3rd September 2013
Sunday 1st September 2013

Tuesday 27th August 2013
Sunday 25th August 2013
Monday 19th August 2013
Friday 16th August 2013
Tuesday 13th August 2013
Friday 9th August 2013
Friday 2nd August 2013
Thursday 1st August 2013

July 2013

Saturday 27th July 2013
Sunday 21st July 2013
Wednesday 17th July 2013
Monday 15th July 2013
Saturday 13th July 2013
Friday 12th July 2013
Thursday 11th July 2013
Wednesday 10th July 2013
Tuesday 9th July 2013
Saturday 6th July 2013

June 2013

Friday 28th June 2013
Tuesday 25th June 2013
Friday 21st June 2013
Thursday 20th June 2013
Wednesday 19th June 2013
Saturday 15th June 2013
Sunday 9th June 2013
Saturday 8th June 2013
Saturday 1st June 2013

May 2013

April 2013

March 2013

February 2013

January 2013

December 2012

November 2012

October 2012

September 2012

August 2012

July 2012 blog

June 2012 blog

May 2012 blog

April 2012 blog

March 2012 blog

February 2012 blog

January 2012 blog

December 2011 blog

November 2011 blog

October 2011 blog

September 2011 blog

August 2011 blog

July 2011 blog

June 2011 blog


The POISON GARDEN website is not connected with Alnwick Garden Enterprises Ltd and/or The Alnwick Garden Trust.