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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 26th May 2012

You wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you knew how infrequently they did.

I don’t know who first had that thought. It seems that, worded differently, it is attributed to Olin Miller but no-one seems to know who Olin Miller was nor be able to cite any written works other than a few other ‘wise old sayings’ that get attributed to him.

It came to mind, yesterday, when someone told me they had heard that I was ‘vehemently opposed’ to alcohol. I know the person who said this and I can’t recall he and I ever having a discussion specifically about alcohol so I don’t know if someone else has told him and he has believed them or if something I said in a general conversation has given that impression.

I wouldn’t have described myself as ‘vehemently opposed’ so it just goes to show how people can form their own view of who you are and what you believe. They may not think about you often but, when they do, you have no control over what they do think.

It is nearly six and a half years since I last drank alcohol. They were three factors that led me to stop, or two factors that brought about the cessation and a third that has worked to keep me away from drinking.

My wife was going through a period of even worse than usual health and had had a few medical emergencies. It struck me that I might need to deal with such a situation at any time and I didn’t want to be prevented from dealing with it by having had a drink.

I don’t mean ‘had a drink’ in the sense it is sometimes used of meaning ‘had a skinful’. I mean, literally had a drink and to understand the difference we need to turn to my second reason for stopping.

For about the last twenty years of my drinking I had rigorously enforced a self-determined ban on driving within twelve hours of having anything to drink. That came about by chance. In the ‘80s I would take clients out to lunch and, if they wanted wine with the meal, I would have one glass with them before driving wherever the afternoon took me.

One winter Friday, my customer opted to stick to soft drinks since he had an important report to complete before the weekend so I also stuck to tonic water. The drive home in the winter dark was quite foggy and a car two in front mistakenly entered the right hand turn lane and pulled back onto the carriageway into the car directly in front which had accelerated thinking the other was turning right.

I was far enough back not to become involved but it struck me later that even one glass of wine might have been enough to change my driving style leaving me too close to the vehicles ahead. From that day on I allowed myself twelve hours even if that included sleeping the night between drinking and driving.

Many people stop drinking when they realise that it has got out of control but, for me, the second factor that brought about the cessation was that my drinking was too much in control. During the summer months when I worked at the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden I would sometimes not get home until nearly 8pm and I would have to go out again just after 8am the next morning. That left a very narrow window for having a drink and I realised I was having a glass of wine or a gin and tonic as soon as I got in not necessarily because I wanted it but because I couldn’t have it later.

It struck me that this was a silly way of going on and I haven’t a drink since I had that realisation.

But it is the third reason that has made it easy to stay away from alcohol. That is my growing appreciation of just how damaging alcohol can be. That didn’t come entirely after I quit. From the moment I started researching poisonous and psychoactive plants and plant derived substances I was aware that alcohol is the second biggest killer, way ahead of heroin though way behind tobacco.

As I researched more about the illicit psychoactives I became more and more away of the illogicality of condemning someone for using say cannabis or cocaine whilst tolerating the use of alcohol.

I believe that adults should be free to decide what they do or do not use and that society’s only involvement should be to minimise the harm done to others by that use. I fully support the smoking ban in enclosed public spaces because that forces harmful chemicals onto others but I wouldn’t support an attempt to ban smoking because that would be removing the individual’s right to choose.

My own personal choice, for the past six plus years has been to end the use of the only psychoactive substance I was taking, having never used any of the illicits and having quit smoking in 1985. But that is my personal choice and I didn’t think it gave people the impression that I am ‘vehemently opposed’ to alcohol.

I do believe people should be given as much factual information about all these substances and certainly think it is essential to be consistent in one’s approach to this topic. That’s why I think someone like Peter Hitchens who argues that cannabis is bad because it is illegal and alcohol is OK because it is legal has got it very badly wrong.

It is nearly a year since I started writing this blog and a number of times I’ve noticed how completely separate events come together into a single subject. While I was thinking about this entry, I saw a newspaper story about the Alnwick Garden Treehouse Restaurant.

The Alnwick Garden managed to persuade the Home Office to grant it a licence to grow Cannabis sativa, marijuana, and Erythroxylum coca, cocaine, on the basis that the prime role of the Poison Garden was an educational one, especially for young people facing the choice of whether to use drugs or not.

It was this educational role that enabled me to get the RHS at Kew Gardens to pass on an Erythroxylum coca plant to Alnwick but that only happened after a couple of people from Kew had visited the Poison Garden and satisfied themselves by taking a regular tour that the garden was focussed on education leading to reduced harmful substance use.

I did have issues with the way the substance abuse message was being delivered by some of those involved with the Alnwick Garden since it seemed to me to rely too much on the ‘Just say no’ approach that has been found to be counter-productive but, at least, the intention was to educate.

That’s why I was disappointed to read that the Treehouse Restaurant is introducing a range of dedicated cocktails themed around the Alnwick Garden mostly including ‘Jane’, the given name of the Duchess of Northumberland, in their titles and that one of these is to be called ‘Deadly Jane’ and served in a ‘poison’ bottle.

Much of the confusion young people experience over psychoactive substance use results from the message that altering your mental state is fine as long as it is done with a substance arbitrarily determined to be legal and not something that has been declared, on the basis of flawed or out of date evidence, to be illegal. 

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