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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 22nd April 2012

I’ve been thinking about coke. Thinking is not case sensitive so I didn’t need to tell myself I was thinking about Coke and coke but when I write about thinking, I do. It’s another one of those times when two entirely separate things collided in my brain.

I’ll start with Coke and then turn my attention to coke and, hopefully, bring them together at the end.

Normally, you wouldn’t expect an inquest into the death of a woman in New Zealand to attract a lot of attention but Google News assures me that 941 publications have felt that the death of Natasha Harris was worth writing about. That even includes the Guardian1 whose ‘Coca-Cola habit linked to New Zealander's death’ headline is just one of the variations used by headline writers involving the words ‘Coke’ or ‘Coca-Cola’ ‘habit’ and ‘death’.

The ‘linked to’ is important as we’ll see but it should be no surprise that quite a number of the stories are more definitive though they rely on the get out of the use of quote marks. Thus the Daily Mirror in the UK has ‘'Killed by Coca-Cola2'’, Australia’s Herald Sun has ‘Guzzling Coke ‘killed NZ mum3'’ and the Mail Online says ‘Mother-of-eight died suddenly 'because she drank 18 pints of Coke a day4'’.

In case you haven’t heard me rant about quote marks before, my complaint is that newspapers use them to get readers to believe something that the publication either can’t be sure is true or, often, knows is untrue bit it also knows that sticking to demonstrable truth will make the story much less interesting.

And so it is here. As the Guardian sub-headline states, ‘Coroner says woman's eight-litre-a-day habit and poor nutrition probably contributed to fatal heart attack’. So, not just the coke and just ‘probably’ a contribution.

The use of quote marks to distort people’s reading of the story, however, is recognised as a powerful tool. So much so that Coca-Cola rushed to note that drinking excessive amounts of water can be deadly, which is true. What killed this woman was not drinking Coca-Cola. It may have been the very poor lifestyle she adopted for a good many years but it might not have had anything to do with that, either. We can’t say whether she would have survived if she’d eaten her greens and run four miles a day.

What you can say is that, if you look at thousands of deaths, you see that poor nutrition and lack of exercise increase the chance of early death but you can’t take a population based situation and apply it, with certainty, to one individual.

Where coke comes into it is that I read a blog entry from someone who had recently visited the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden that contained a link to a new section of the Alnwick Garden website5. The new section makes a feature of ‘The Coca plant’ i.e. Erythroxylum coca, the source of cocaine. I haven’t visited the garden recently but, the last time I did, there was no coca plant on display.

Erythroxylum coca, cocaine plant

Erythroxylum coca

If the picture on the site is recent, and there is no metadata attached to the image file to show when it was taken, that is very good news because it means my long trip to London in May 2008 was worthwhile.

Though the Alnwick Garden was granted a licence to have Erythroxylum coca before I became involved with the Poison Garden, that didn’t make it easy to get hold of a plant. I did manage to find a source for seeds, at £10 each, but after two lots only two seeds germinated and those plants died in the greenhouse early in 2008. By that time, I was in touch with Liz Dauncey at Kew Gardens (to my knowledge, the only other place in the UK with a licence for the plant) and she was able to arrange for us to have an old plant that was about to be discarded after a new plant have been propagated by cuttings.

Kew were kind enough to offer to organise the paperwork and, after several weeks of being told by the Home Office that it was looking into the documentation required to transfer a plant from one licensee to another, they said they had been told to just go ahead because no such procedure existed. That was my cue to drive to London, load a large bush into my car and return to Alnwick. Since I had no paperwork, I was anxious to avoid coming to anyone’s attention during the drive but I did need to make sure I got back in time to get the plant safely locked in the greenhouse before the gardeners finished work for the day.  

Erythroxylum coca

Safe and sound

This was the last thing I did before I left the garden and I’ve never heard how well propagation went. I do know that the plant itself was displayed during the summer of 2008 but it wasn’t doing well in the conditions and did not survive.

So, I really hope the picture now appearing on the Alnwick garden website is a new plant grown from the old.

And what brings these two stories, one about ‘Coke’ and the other about ‘coke’, together? Firstly, just as the World Health Organisation found, in the 1990s Tuesday 5th July 2011, that the majority of coke users suffer no long-term harm so the majority of Coke users will not pay a high price for their enjoyment.

But, also, there is the way that people often talk about deaths resulting from the use of cocaine as if the drug were the sole cause whereas further investigation shows that many of the deceased were long-term polysubstance users and that other drugs or alcohol were also found during post-mortem examination.

So, it is valid to say ‘coke linked to’ deaths but it is a gross over-simplification to say ‘killed by coke’.


1.Coca-Cola habit linked to New Zealander's death The Guardian 20th April 2012   
2.'Killed by Coca-Cola': Mum-of-eight died suddenly after drinking 8-litres a day for 8 years Daily Mirror 19th April 2012
3.Guzzling Coke ‘killed NZ mum' Herald Sun 20th April 2012
4.Mother-of-eight died suddenly 'because she drank 18 pints of Coke a day' Mail Online 19th April 2012
5.The Poison Garden The Alnwick Garden website 22nd April 2012

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