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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 23rd November 2011

I make a conscious effort not to let this blog become solely about psychoactive substances. There are other aspects of poisoning that I feel I should be dealing with though, especially at this time of year, it may be harder to find interesting subjects in the non-intoxicating plants.

It would, however, be very easy to write about drugs every day because I find plenty of items to read and many of them are worthy of comment. I don’t know if there really is more going on in this area than before or I’ve just bought a red Nissan Micra.

You must have noticed that, if you buy something new like a red Nissan Micra, you then seem to see lots more of them than you used to. Your first thought is that suddenly everyone has decided to buy the same car as you but, rationally, it is just that, until you bought yours, red Nissan Micras were of no interest.

And that’s what I mean about substance use stories. I can’t be sure there has been a large increase in the number of stories about the need for changes in the control regime required under the UN conventions or whether it’s just that I’m now looking out for such stories and following a number of organisations on Twitter that provide information on them. Incidentally, I’ve modified the links page in the ‘Phantastica’ section to give Twitter follow links for a number of those organisations.

Overall, I do feel there has been a big increase in the number of voices saying that prohibition has to end and society has to find a better way of minimising the harm caused by these substances. I could easily fill up this, and several more, blog entries just by giving links to the latest pronouncements.

Some very prominent and, perhaps, surprising people have been calling for change. That change may just be the notion of looking at the way the current policy operates to get an independent evaluation or it could be a complete end to prohibition and its replacement with a regulatory regime.

Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia, has been on a visit to Britain and has been delivering the message that the world must look at the way drugs are dealt with to find a way to stop the harm done in his and other producer countries. He says he would go along with a decision to change the legal status the substances currently covered by the UN single conventions on narcotics.

Former head of MI5, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, told a two day conference on drugs policy organised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform that it was time to look at alternative policies, including regulating cannabis. The conference called for David Cameron to set up a parliamentary commission to examine drug policy.

Also, in the past few days, the Beckley Foundation published an open letter headed ‘The Global War on Drugs has Failed – It is Time for a New Approach’. The letter was signed by, among others, Jimmy Carter, the former US President, and former presidents from Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Switzerland and two former Polish presidents. In total 63 prominent people signed the letter, including six serving UK MPs.

Of course, this burst of anti-prohibition activity has produced a backlash from the ‘pro’ lobby including an extraordinary piece by Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail that focussed on a personal attack on Amanda Feilding, Countess of Wemyss and the founder of the Beckley Foundation.

Phillips was not the only one making herself look foolish trying to defend what more and more sensible people are coming to see as the indefensible. Last Thursday and Friday I wrote about the lies and distortions that are becoming the norm for prohibitionists.

And the reason, the debate matters and something needs to be done? Well, that comes today with the publication by the NHS in England of its annual ‘Statistics on Drug Misuse’.  This report combines figures from the British Crime Survey on anonymous self-declaration of drug use with figures for hospital attendance and problem drug use.

The report shows that, though the long-term trends are downwards*, annual prevalence for any illicit drug is still estimated to be 8.8% for 16-59 year olds and that, by the age of fifteen, 18% of children have used drugs at least once. But, the key data is that over 50,000 hospital admissions had drug use as a primary or secondary diagnosis and that over 200,000 adults were in contact with treatment services.

We have to look and see if there is a better way of dealing with the issue.

*Because the report looks only at the illegal substances it is impossible to say whether an increase in alcohol use has substituted for illegal drug use. We should be more concerned about the overall issue of intoxication rather than making an artificial distinction between legal and illegal agents of intoxication.