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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 19th December 2011 

After yesterday’s quotation opening I went looking for something suited to today and found it in Othello;

‘O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains! that we should, with joy, pleasance, revel, and applause, transform ourselves into beasts!’

I’ve been wondering how to write about the nearly 200 deaths in West Bengal in India following the sale of poisonous alcohol in the region. There are a number of issues raised by this tragedy and, at this point, I’m not sure whether to try and briefly cover all of them or focus on some specific facet.

In case you haven’t read about it, the deaths, variously put at 169, 171 or 173 to date, arose after methanol was added to illegally brewed alcohol and sold in the various shops and markets operating outside the law to supply the demands of those too poor to buy their alcohol from government supervised suppliers.

Methanol is highly toxic. It is the substance widely added to bootleg alcohol during Prohibition in the USA. Like any poison, the dose determines the harm and methyl alcohol was, mostly, used in low concentrations so that it didn’t produce too many deaths. It was also this industrial alcohol that the American government decided to adulterate to make more lethal in the forlorn hope that this would reduce its attractiveness to bootleggers. You’ll find more about it in this blog entry.

I suppose the first point to note is that the coverage of the Indian poisonings in the UK media has been limited. Yes, the story was reported but not with any great prominence and there has been no new coverage since Friday although a story of this sort always has further developments such as the results of continuing investigations or the progress of the recoveries of the sick or the political fallout as the blame game starts. It’s hard not to conclude that the media either thinks deaths of foreigners are not important or it believes that the British public thinks that and doesn’t want to read about such events in detail.

It may be over-cynical to suggest that the fresh tragedies in The Philippines and Indonesia are sufficient to fill the quota for ‘foreigners dead’ stories and have pushed the West Bengal story out of consideration but, it must be said, the alcohol poisoning story did push the story of a deadly fire in a Kolkata hospital out.

But a more challenging point, for someone of my opinions, is what the story says about the ability of governments to regulate harmful substances. The drinking of alcohol in India is frowned on for religious reasons but the state makes it available through tightly regulated outlets. The problem comes because the cost of officially sanctioned alcohol is beyond the reach of many of India’s working class who, instead, are happy to obtain their booze from illegal sources.

Some of the reports of the event have pointed out that the whole illegal supply chain from quite large scale manufacturers down to the smallest market stall seller is well-known and that for a number of reasons little action is taken by the authorities unless a tragedy such as this occurs. Those reasons can include corruption, inefficiency and the lack of political will to deal with the problem.

It, obviously, calls into question the ability of governments to control the supply of psychoactive substances faced with a population that is determined to obtain them. Clearly, the balance between using pricing to limit demand without driving people to illegal alternatives has gone badly wrong in India. Prohibitionists will, undoubtedly, suggest that this shows that the idea of a regulated market for the currently illegal substances is Utopian in the extreme. And, of course, it would be foolish to suggest that a move to regulation and control would be easy or 100% successful.

But, the distressing pictures and reports coming from West Bengal show that leaving the supply of such substances in the hands of criminals whether as a result of complete prohibition or a failure in the regulatory regime is not the way to minimise the harm such substances can do.