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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 21st May 2012

Two reports, one from each end of the story of heroin, raised further concerns about the falling quality of newspapers in the UK. I thought I’d detected a common problem with the two but that turned out not to be the case.

The Guardian website also carries content from The Observer, the paper owned by the owners of the Guardian but, at the moment, produced by a separate editorial staff. When the two reports appeared, yesterday, my first assumption was that they both came from the Observer and their failings could not be laid at the door of the Guardian.

A closer look, however, showed the first as being credited to the Observer and the second to the Guardian so the newspaper many people hold up as the last example of accurate and relevant coverage in the printed media was not without blame.

The Observer story was about a recommendation from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) that naloxone should be available without prescription.1 Naloxone counters an overdose of heroin and can revive users from the unconsciousness that precedes death for long enough for them to reach hospital.

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

At present, it is a prescription only medication meaning that it is generally only available from ambulances, emergency doctors and A & E departments of hospitals. The ACMD believes that allowing the drug to be available more widely, such as from outreach centres and other people or organisations close to injecting drug users (IDUs), would save lives.

The Observer story quotes Professor Les Iversen, chair of the ACMD, Mike Pattinson, a director of a charity offering help to IDUs, and Trevor Ball, a 'recovering heroin addict', all offering their comments on why naloxone should be more widely available.

But then it gives the other side of the story; concerns that IDUs might take greater risks if they know naloxone is readily available and concerns about side effects.

And who does it quote to illustrate these concerns? ‘Critics’, ‘some’ and ‘others’. So ‘critics’ say it would encourage greater use of heroin, ‘some’ people claim it would encourage riskier drug-taking and ‘others’ warn that up to 3% of users suffer side effects that are ‘potentially life-threatening’.

Given that we know who Iversen, Pattinson and Ball are you can only wonder why the Observer can’t put names to ‘critics’ ‘some’ and ‘others’. Perhaps they don’t have any.

The side effects part of the story is interesting. Given that 100% of the IDUs who need naloxone are in imminent danger of death ‘up to 3%’ suffering ‘potentially life-threatening’ side effects seems like a good bet to me.

From a story affecting the end users of heroin to one at the opposite end of the life cycle of heroin about the growers of Papaver somniferum, opium poppy, in Afghanistan.

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

On Sunday evening, the Guardian reported that ‘Taliban destroy poppy fields in surprise clampdown on Afghan opium growers’2 The story is then one of the worst ‘Paragraph 19’ stories I’ve seen for a long time.

It begins by saying that the Taliban have destroyed ‘fields of poppies’ in eastern Afghanistan.

The next paragraph says this was ‘a relatively small area’ but we have to wait a further two paragraphs to learn that the destruction amounted to ‘nearly a hectare’ in the Kunar province. Before getting to the actual ‘Paragraph 19’ moment, which actually occurs in paragraph 24, the final one of the story, let’s look at Kunar and its opium poppy cultivation.

According to the most recent United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Afghanistan Opium Survey3 says that Afghanistan is growing 131,000 hectares of poppy this season. Eradicating ‘nearly a hectare’ from 131,000 is hardly a big effort. It is not even that large a part of Kunar’s total area that is estimated at 578 hectares. The UNODC defines Kunar as having a ‘low’ level of cultivation.

Reading the full story what appears to have happened is that local elders and religious leaders felt that poppy growing was against their religion and asked for help from the local heavies who willingly obliged. For the Guardian to state that the eradication ‘won a chorus of praise from the Afghan government and international organisations’ is simply ridiculous.

So, a small local incident gets blown up into something it is not for reasons that aren’t at all clear.

And then, after all the nonsense about the possible significance of an insignificant event comes the ‘Paragraph 19’ moment;

‘As an eyewitness I can say the Taliban destroyed a jerib [a fifth of a hectare] of drugs’

So it is not even 1 in 131,000 – it is 1 in 655,000.

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