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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 26th February 2012

I sat down to write about one of the UN agencies involved in the implementation of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. The International Narcotics Control Board has two functions; to make sure that people who might benefit from the therapeutic properties of these substances are able to get them and to limit the diversion of such medicines to illicit use. That’s my summary; the full mandate can be read here. The INCB has just published its projection for the 2012 requirements for these ‘Narcotic Drugs’ together with actual data for 2010. You can access the report via this page. It’s a 444 page document but it is in three languages so it is not as daunting as it sounds, though the pdf download is quite a size.

Before starting, I thought I’d have a quick look at Twitter and, as a result, I’m going to be writing about another UN body, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

On 17th January, I wrote;

‘Yury Fedotov is the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and regularly uses Twitter to make announcements about UNODC affairs and events of interest. I should say that someone in the UNODC office tweets in Fedotov’s name because I’d be very surprised if he is actually composing them himself. Given what follows, I’d be horrified if he produces his own Tweets.’

That statement is just as true today. I have to wonder if Mr Fedotov really thinks the best use of his, undoubtedly expensive, time is sending Tweets and I’m particularly concerned if he thinks this is a good way to relax on a Sunday.

The first tweet of a group of four said;

‘#Afghanistan has recently emerged as the major producer of #cannabis resin, competing to #opium poppy.’

I’m not sure how you would justify saying ‘competing to #opium poppy’ because I doubt if it is exclusively farmers switching from Papaver somniferum, opium poppy, to Cannabis sativa, marijuana. Of course, if Afghan farmers were giving up growing opium poppies in favour of cannabis that would be something that many people who understand relative harms would applaud.

The second tweet said;

 ‘#cannabis use can damage the brain, has negative effects on memory, including learning ability, and is associated with mental illness.’

‘Can’, of course, doesn’t mean ‘does’ so that’s might be a fair comment but saying ‘has’ rather than ‘may have’ takes it beyond the truth.

The fourth tweet said;

‘#cannabis remains the second most cited drug after alcohol causing car crashes.’

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take from that. To me, it says there is more to be gained by reducing the number of car crashes due to alcohol but I don’t think that’s what was intended.

But it was the third tweet that provoked me to respond;

‘#cannabis is a gateway drug that always precedes the use of "heavy" drugs, including cocaine, opiates and synthetics.’

‘Cannabis is a gateway drug’ is, quite simply, a lie. I know it is a lie because the UNODC says so. The most recent World Drug Report says that between 125 and 203 million people consumed cannabis in 2009 and between 12 and 21 million opioid users. Add to that the 14.2 to 20.5 million cocaine users and you still find that, quite clearly, the overwhelming majority of cannabis users do not go on to other substances.

Of course, the tweet actually has it reversed. It does not say that people who use cannabis go on to use other drugs, though that it what is implied by the word ‘gateway’. What it claims is that everyone who uses ‘heavy’ drugs started with cannabis. That use of the word ‘always’ is completely unjustifiable and not only because there are heroin users who started by receiving poorly controlled pain relief leading to addiction as well as ecstasy users (considered by UNODC to be a ‘heavy’ drug) who know that cannabis does not provide what they are looking for.

But, even if the word ‘always’ had not been used, the comment is still wrong. Even if every user of ‘heavy’ drugs began by using cannabis, that does not mean that every user of cannabis will become a user of ‘heavy’ drugs. That can be demonstrated from simple logic; just because every professional basketball player is tall doesn’t mean that every tall person will become a professional basketball player. But, as noted above, it is also demonstrated by the UNODC’s own figures.

I tweeted the tweeter who uses the name Yury Fedotov saying;

‘@YuryFedotov Evidence? I thought not. 'Always' - that's a particularly wrong word to use.’

When I tweeted this user before about a discrepancy between his claimed value for a heroin seizure and the value being reported in the local media of one of the countries concerned I received no reply so I don’t expect anything this time. On that occasion, I wrote ‘telling lies is risky because if it is easy for people to get at the truth you lose credibility and make yourself look foolish’.

When will the UNODC learn that talking as though you are concerned about reducing the harm caused by drugs means nothing if you lie about drugs and make yourself irrelevant?

Monday, 27th February. This morning Gilberto Gerra, Chief of Drug Prevention and Health Branch, UNODC, tweeted;

Cannabis smoke provokes lungs diseases, car accidents risk, emotional changes in adolescents and mental health problems: a new UNODC review

There's no link and I couldn't see anything on the UNODC website about a 'new' review. Does UNODC really think it is good enough to say 'Because we say so...'?