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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 10th January 2012

Writing a daily blog carries with it the risk of repeating yourself. As far as possible, I try to watch for that happening by searching previous entries to make sure I haven’t made the point I’m considering, or told the story that’s come to mind, before.

Today, however, I am going to, largely, repeat myself. One reason for doing that is that I know new people are reading this blog all the time, many as the result of mentions from Leon Gussow’s excellent The Poison Review for which I’m grateful. The other reason for today’s topic is that I’ve concluded that for as long as Kathy Gyngell continues to write about drugs as she does it is important to keep pointing out the nonsense that makes up quite a large part of that writing.

Her latest piece was published a couple of days ago in a section called ‘RightMinds’. It’s a pity that ‘right’ means both a particular political viewpoint and correct because, if it didn’t, you couldn’t make this attempt to associate extreme political views with truth. Its headline is ‘Frankly they don’t give a damn. When will the Government commit to a proper drugs prevention policy?’ and, in it, Ms Gyngell seeks to rubbish the ‘Talk to Frank’ website.

I’m not that much of a fan of that site, myself, but that is because it only manages to go part of the way towards presenting factual information about the substances young people take. It can’t go the whole way because the ill-informed scream blue murder whenever they find that Frank is taking a pragmatic view of the issues.

The fact is that drug use amongst schoolchildren is dropping. The worry is that alcohol use remains worryingly high but alcohol, of course is legal and drinks companies buy adverts in the media so we shouldn’t really expect too robust a criticism of alcohol. The fact that drug use is dropping amongst schoolchildren doesn’t suit the Gyngell case so she seeks to undermine it by suggesting that drug-takers are truanting so don’t get surveyed or that schools with high drug-using populations refuse to take part in surveys.

Kathy must have three or four arms. How else can she continue to type whilst having her fingers in her ears and singing ‘la, la, la’ in order to avoid any facts about psychoactive substances confronting her prejudice?

In her world, telling young people that alcohol is more dangerous than cannabis is a crime rather than the simple truth. (It is notable that Gyngell reverses that to claim the Frank tells young people cannabis is safer than alcohol to give the impression that the site is trying to encourage cannabis use.)

For the most part this is essentially another rehash of Ms Gyngell’s regularly stated distortions 23rd September 2nd dec and I’ve written about them when discussing her articles about the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP) and the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) inquiry into drug policy.

Amanita muscaria, fly agaric

Amanita muscaria, fly agaric

A key difference with this article is the completely incorrect comments she makes about Amanita muscaria, fly agaric. She claims it is ‘very, very poisonous’. Now, I admit, I usually say that eating it could cause stomach upset because I don’t want to appear to be encouraging its use but the important word is ‘could’ because not everyone who uses Amanita muscaria experiences the nausea and vomiting mentioned in almost every book about it.

She, also, states that it remains ‘highly toxic’ when cooked. I have a recipe for fly agaric mushrooms which details how to prepare them to make them perfectly safe for eating. I haven’t tried it myself because it is too much of a faff for my cooking style. I’m not sure that many people will have tried it because, it seems, the preparation destroys the psychoactive ingredients and you’re left with something that is not much different from the mushrooms sold by your local supermarket.

Included in these completely false statements about Amanita muscaria is one of the facts that aren’t which columnists like Kathy are fond of using. She says it is ‘not a magic mushroom’. Well, that is a fact because the term magic mushroom is, generally, used to describe Psilocybe semilanceata though, I see, she is taking her lead from the ‘Talk to Frank’ site which says, wrongly, that fly agaric is called magic mushroom.

So, she is right to say it is not a magic mushroom but what she wants you to assume from that is that it is not psychoactive. I don’t know why she would want to spread that erroneous information. If a substance isn’t psychoactive then there is no reason to discourage its use.

Though I had seen this article I hadn’t paid a great deal of attention to it until I received a Tweet from Professor Alex Stevens asking me to comment on her claims about fly agaric. I’ve never used it, myself, (nor have I ever used any of the illicit psychoactive substances) but male doctors are quite capable of discussing childbirth based on their learning and contact with those who have experienced it. I'm happy, therefore, to trust my extensive reading about it.

I referred Prof Stevens to a couple of YouTube videos, one showing someone eating a large mushroom cap and the other being a commentary on the intoxication experienced by a user. Search YouTube for ‘Amanita muscaria’ and you get plenty of choice in the results.

Kathy Gyngell is wrong to say fly agaric is ‘very, very poisonous’ and wrong to imply that it has no intoxicating properties because it is not, usually, referred to as ‘magic mushroom’. I may be wrong by suggesting that any physical harm is caused by eating it but I’ll stick with the could cause nausea and vomiting.

I wrote, yesterday, about being optimistic about the way drug policy is being discussed. You’d think a piece like this would dampen that optimism. It doesn’t because so many of the commenters at the end of the piece point out the factual errors in Gyngell’s argument.

I’m even optimistic enough to believe that the Mail may realise that the opinions of its ‘RightMinds’ on drug policy are out of step with its readership and stop publishing pieces that only serve to stop young people seeking advice that could reduce their substance use.

Addendum. And that optimism seems justified by the Mail publishing a critique of Kathy Gyngell, based on evidence not prejudice, by Damon Barrett and Dr Adam Fletcher