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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 22nd December 2011 

According to the Home Office website, heroin is a Class A controlled substance under The Misuse of Drugs Act and, the site says, this means ‘that it is an offence to:

possess a controlled substance unlawfully
possess a controlled substance with intent to supply it
supply or offer to supply a controlled drug (even if it is given away for free)’

And, yet, a story has been quite widely circulated about someone being supplied with heroin for free and no action being taken against the supplier.

I’ve written quite a few times about how useful archives are to my work, most recently on 15th December. Archives can throw up some surprising little gems. Of course, in my situation where I’m working with online archives those little surprises are in the form of documents but, it seems, users of physical archives can get more tangible surprises.

A number of media outlets reported, a couple of days ago, a very odd find in the National Archives in Kew. An unnamed member of the public asked to see the records of a 1928 criminal case in Egypt that had been sent, at the time, to the UK government by the British Consulate in Cairo. When the researcher opened the file, a pouch containing 19 sachets of an off-white powder was discovered.

Tests showed the powder to be heroin. In total, there was less than a gram. The find was photographed and the photograph was placed in the file when it was returned to storage. And that really is the end of the story.

I was, of course, being facetious in suggesting that an offence of supplying a controlled drug (even though it was given for free) has occurred and gone unpunished but the story does raise some interesting points.

First, the fact that the analysis was able to identify heroin in samples over 80 years old shows that long-term storage if heroin is possible. The discrepancies between production and consumption estimates may be explainable by heroin being stored to keep a balance between supply and demand so that prices don’t collapse completely. I’ve suggested that the apparent stockpile of heroin may be an indication of a finite demand for the substance though, I accept, that would be impossible to verify.

The other thing that fascinates me is to know just what this 1928 case was about. What was so important about a pouch containing less than one gram of heroin that it even came to court in Egypt and how did that court case merit the interest of the British Consulate and the UK government?

It is to be hoped that, whoever the unnamed researcher was, he was conducting research for a work for publication and, furthermore, that the brief notoriety of his research will be used to publicise the work on publication because I think it may tell us a lot about attitudes in the first half of the 20th century to the use of heroin.

Meanwhile, I rather suspect that staff at the National Archives will be giving files a bit of a squeeze before handing them over to researchers, at least until the memory of this bizarre and very rare find fades.