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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 16th August 2011

I was contacted by a freelance journalist who wanted me to flesh out the information on Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed, in an Edinburgh shopping centre that I give in the A to Z section of this site.

I didn’t establish if she has a commission to write a piece or whether she was writing it because of her own interest and hoping she could sell it. Towards the end of our chat, I wouldn’t call it an interview because she didn’t seem to have a target list of information she wanted to obtain, she asked me if I thought there should be a law requiring landowners to deal with giant hogweed.

Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed

I must admit that is a difficult one for me. I do think that landowners should be aware of the harm that Heracleum mantegazzianum can do and should take action against it before it can flower and set seed. But I’m not sure that a change in the law is required. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 already contains a section stating that ‘if any person plants or otherwise causes to grow in the wild any plant which is included in Part II of Schedule 9, he shall be guilty of an offence’. Part II of Schedule 9 currently contains thirty-two plants including the giant hogweed. I say ‘currently’ because there have been additions since the act was first passed and there could be additions in the future.

Of the 31 other plants, the overwhelming majority are plants that grow in water, both fresh and seawater, and Polygonum cuspidatum, Japanese knotweed. It is interesting that the act uses that botanical name because Japanese knotweed is more usually known by the synonym Fallopia japonica.

So, if giant hogweed just appears on your land you can’t be accused of planting it or causing it to grow. But, what of the seeds of that plant? It is sometimes said that allowing the seeds to be distributed is an offence and, I suppose, you could argue that allowing a plant to set seed amounts to ‘causing [a new plant] to grow’. I’m not aware of anyone ever using that interpretation of the law to prosecute a landowner who failed to deal with plants on his land but, I suppose, that argument could be tested in court.

Of course, the law says ‘in the wild’ so you’d need to show that a plant ‘in the wild’ had grown from seed allowed to form by a specific landowner. I’m not sure that a brownfield site in a shopping centre qualifies as ‘in the wild’.

Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed

But, there is a broader issue. I don’t like laws, in principle. I think the state should seek to minimise its intervention in the lives of people which means not constantly making new laws to try and control, regulate or tax their behaviour. I always argue against those people who complain of MPs having second jobs. For me, a fulltime parliament would simply have a lot more time to pass laws. If MPs are off doing their second jobs they aren’t finding new ways to control my activities.

There is a more serious point to this. If a law is either unenforceable per se or just not enforced because there are not the resources to enforce it, that seems, to me, to ever so slightly chip away at respect for the law. The greatest example of this is, I believe, the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Surveying the use of illegal substances is always difficult so one shouldn’t rely on survey results being pinpoint accurate. However, almost all surveys, no matter how conducted or structured, suggest that around 50% of the adult population of the UK has tried Cannabis sativa at least once in their lives. That’s half the population that decided to ignore the law and make a personal decision about what was right or wrong.

I think that half may look at other laws and decide whether to obey them or not. In all the talk about how to respond to last week’s outbreaks of violence and looting, there has been frequent reference to new laws to enable the police to deal with such situations. I may be the only person thinking that this is the time for fewer laws. For looking at what are the key prohibitions that almost everyone can agree on and will adhere to. Once we have those we should do away with the rest because laws that aren’t respected damage society more than not having them.