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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 22nd July 2011

When I was a boy I remember being told about Canute, the mediaeval king who was so stupid that he thought he could command the tide to stop coming in. Now, of course, the story is about how King Knut demonstrated the limits of his power by showing that he could not command the seas. From being stupid, Knut has become wise and realistic about the truth of the world.

Sadly, it seems, US presidents don’t have that same sense and would like you to believe that black is white if the federal government says it is so. There is a story that, in 2007, officials in George W Bush’s White House refused to open an email from the Environmental Protection Agency because they knew it said that greenhouses gases were pollutants and ‘must be controlled’. By not opening the email, the Bush line that man had nothing to do with climate change could be maintained.

When Bush was succeeded by Barack Obama the belief was that a complete change in the way the government operated would occur. If Obama's Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator, Michele M. Leonhart, is typical, it seems that there has been no change. Ms Leonhart stated, on 8th July, that cannabis "has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States".

Or, rather, she is reported to have said ‘marijuana’. That may be a very significant difference. As we’re finding out with the continuing saga of what the media, and not just the News of the World, have been up to, words can be very important. I’ve just about managed to stop myself screaming at the TV or radio whenever anyone says ‘phone hacking’ because, what we’ve heard about was voicemail interception. The difference being that someone can deny having any knowledge of ‘phone hacking’ and, if it turns out that they were involved in voicemail interception, they can claim not to have lied.

Now, I don’t know what is meant by the word ‘marijuana’, as I’ll explain later, and it is possible that Ms Leonhart may be pleased that there is confusion over its meaning as it gives her ‘wiggle room’. There is also wiggle room in the rest of her comment. ‘No currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States’ is perfectly true if you accept that, as DEA Administrator, it is up to Ms Leonhart to say whether something is accepted or not.

It is, clearly, complete nonsense to suggest that Cannabis sativa has no medical use because the pharmaceutical company, GWP, has received licences for its product, ‘Sativex’, which is made from delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component of Cannabis sativa that occurs in the highest concentrations. You only get licences for a medicine if you have satisfied a great many people that your product has medical benefits.

Incidentally, I should ‘declare an interest’. I have had a small shareholding in GWP for a number of years as it helps me stay in touch with what is happening with ‘Sativex’.

Many of the other claimed medical benefits of Cannabis are unproven, simply because the federal government, having decided that cannabis has no medical benefits without the benefit of trials, has refused to allow proper trials to take place.

I said, earlier, that I didn’t understand what the word ‘marijuana’ meant. The word came about when cannabis products entered the USA from Mexico early in the 20th century. In Mexico, cannabis could be obtained from brothels and Mexican men would use the euphemism that they were ‘visiting Mary and Jane’ when they went to a brothel. The Spanish Maria y Juana became marijuana. It is often said that marijuana refers only to the flowering tops of the plant, that is the part most often used. But the word is applied to the plant as a whole and to the pure resin, more normally called hashish, so it is impossible to be sure what someone means when they say ‘marijuana’.

It seems to me that the present situation with cannabis in the USA is a complete mess. While the federal government says it has no medical value, more and more states are permitting its use if prescribed for a recognised condition. Some states are more relaxed than others about what constitutes a medical condition so that in some parts of the USA cannabis is pretty much freely available, in others it is strictly controlled and in yet others it remains completely outlawed. But above all the different positions adopted by the states federal law still makes it an offence to possess cannabis and it is only that Obama has said he does not intends to use federal resources to pursue every individual that prevents every user in the USA from ending up in prison.

But, most importantly, this disorganised situation means that there is no control over how cannabis is grown and prepared for consumption and no way to collect reliable data about its effects. Let’s face it, people who like smoking cannabis and have been able to find a medical condition that, in their home state, enables them to use it legally are unlikely to say that they have been cured because then, theoretically, their permission to use it would be withdrawn.

The only way to resolve these problems is for the federal government to say that Cannabis sativa may have medical benefits and it intends to fund proper research trials to establish if the claimed benefits are real. Until the federal government recognises this, President Obama is Canute, telling the tide not to come in, rather than Knut, showing the world that you can’t fight against the evidence.