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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 12th February 2012

A bit of a downbeat turn to today’s blog as I want to write about a number of reports of deaths as a result of illegal drugs. This is not any sort of structured survey of recent stories; just a few that have caught my attention.

Shortly after reports, like this one from ABC News, about the continued high number of arrests in New York for low level marijuana offences, comes this story from the New York Times about Ramarley Graham, an 18-year old shot dead by police in an incident involving the teenager’s attempt to dispose of a small quantity of cannabis down the toilet at his home.

This piece by Tony Newman of Drug Policy Alliance concludes by pointing out ‘No one has ever died from smoking marijuana. But the war on marijuana has taken way too many lives’.

I feel sorry for all those affected by this death, including the police officer who has to live with the knowledge that, regardless of what conclusion any investigation of the death reaches about how it happened, he fired the gun. We know from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) that many police officers are unhappy about what they are required to do to enforce current drug laws.

On 8th January, I wrote about the report into the deaths resulting from anthrax contaminated heroin in Scotland. Now, comes a report of a spate of deaths in Tayside, since the beginning of 2012, thought to be the result of drug overdose. Though the story doesn’t say it, it appears that heroin is the drug concerned. I draw that conclusion from the fact that the police are reported to be making additional supplies of Naxolene available to those who might come into contact with users suffering from overdose.

There’s some comfort in the fact that, whilst maintaining the tough stance and saying dealers could face charges of causing these deaths, the police are saying that they don’t want anyone to be deterred from seeking help if they think they have overdosed for fear of what the police will do to them. That, at least, is a welcome change from the attitude during the anthrax outbreak when the authorities’ only line was to tell people to stop using.

It’s too soon to be sure that overdose is the cause of all these deaths and, equally, too soon to be sure of how higher than expected strength heroin entered the market but it shows the devastating effect of a key point about illegal drugs; there is no quality control on manufacture and users have no idea what they are purchasing.

Another key point about illegal drugs is that users seeking help can’t always be sure that the help on offer is reliable and safe. At the end of January, the deaths of 26 people in a drug rehabilitation centre in Lima, Peru were reported. The centre, run by an organisation called ‘Christ is Love’ was supposed to have been closed down because it failed safety inspections but it continued to operate.

Reports say that the ‘patients’ were locked in so that escape was impossible for many of those who died. It has also been suggested that the fire may have been started by some of the patients as a protest against their incarceration. This article by Rebecca Schleifer of Human Rights Watch gives a chilling account of what Christ is Love seems to think is a good way of dealing with problem drug users.

I did another of my unscientific surveys of the apparent importance of news stories as measured by Google News results. Ramarley Graham returns 274 results with links to about 300 stories. The deaths in the Christ is Love centre in Peru return 40 results but with links to over 650 stories. The Tayside drug overdose deaths don’t appear at all, so far, though I would expect Google to index the BBC report linked to above in due course.

And the other, possibly drug-related, death in the news today? Google News gives 13,100 results for Whitney Houston.