THE POISON GARDEN website      Arum maculatum berries on a Cannabis leaf 


This free script provided by JavaScript Kit

Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 31st August 2011

Last week, the Office for National Statistics published its annual report on drug related deaths in England and Wales. This follows the publication, earlier in the month, of similar data for Scotland. As with almost every statistical report, there are difficulties in fully understanding what the numbers presented mean and there is scope for misrepresentation by the media.

The first problem is that both documents refer to drug-related deaths (DRDs); that is deaths where a specific drug or drugs is mentioned on the death certificate or where the general term ‘drug overdose’ is used. Generally, the media reports these as drug deaths rather than drug-related and write about drugs ‘causing’ the deaths. The distinction between ‘drug-related deaths’ and ‘drug deaths’ may appear to be fine but it leads to the perpetuation of misinformation and, I believe, misinformation contributes to the problem.

I’m not intending to overload this blog with figures so, if you want the full detail, you should obtain your own copy of the report.

The ‘headline’ figures for England and Wales show that 2,747 people died of ‘All drug poisoning’ in 2010 against 2,878 in 2009; a small but not significant decrease. Within that, however, the number of males fell and the number of females increased. Of the 2,747 total, 1,784 were ascribed to ‘Drug misuse’, again a small fall from 2009’s 1,876 and, again, with a rise in females being more than offset by a fall in males.

‘All drug poisoning’ includes prescribed medications i.e. legal substances whereas ‘Drug misuse’ relates only to substances classified under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Note that not all deaths from legal substances are the result of legal use, they include things like sleeping pills bought ‘on the street’ or medications stolen from the designated patient or pharmacies.

Accidental poisoning remains the largest cause of DRDs, followed by deliberate self-poisoning with DRDs related to ‘Mental and behavioural disorders due to drug use’ amounting to only 22% of the total. The report notes that this category has shown a decreasing trend with an increase in the proportion of accidental poisonings but it says the reasons for this are not understood.

I’m not saying that I know what the reason for this increase in accidental overdoses is but I do know where I would start to look. The use of ‘cutting’ by the criminals who control the distribution of heroin and other illegal drugs means that users may not know the actual strength of the substances they are using, especially if police enforcement action has made their normal supplier unavailable and they have obtained their drugs from an untried source.

Trying to get a full picture of what is happening is complicated by the fact that there is a degree of laxity in the way cause of death is reported. It can be recorded simply as ‘drug overdose’ and around 12% of the total DRDs are reported in such non-specific terms. A further 30% of DRDs are have more than one substance named but there is no clear way to determine which substance was the actual cause of death and which an also-ran. So, in 42% of the total, it is not possible to reach any firm conclusion about what caused the death. That’s not very helpful when trying to formulate policies for reducing DRDs.

Take cannabis, for example. Cannabis was mentioned in 11 DRDs in 2010 but in only 2 of those instances was it the only substance mentioned. Incidentally, to discover that you need to be sufficiently interested to download the support Excel spreadsheet.  What the spreadsheet doesn’t say, however, is whether alcohol was a factor in those two cases or whether, as in the 2004 death of Lee Maisey reported on the cannabis plant page, the coroner ignored the toxicology results and cited cannabis as the cause of death in spite of evidence of very low consumption on the part of the deceased.

Turning to Scotland, and, again, you may want to obtain the full report,  there were 485 DRDs in 2010 a decrease of 60 from 2009 but still 193 higher than in 2000. Heroin/morphine was mentioned in 52% of DRDs and methadone in 36% but it is important to remember that those percentages are not additive because both substances could be reported for a single DRD.

It is impossible to make comparisons between Scotland and England and Wales because Scotland has a category for ‘Drug Abuse’ rather than the more detailed ‘Mental and behavioural disorders due to drug use’ used in England and Wales. As a result, 66% of Scottish DRDs are simply written off as ‘Drug Abuse’ suggesting a disinterest in trying to understand what is actually causing these avoidable deaths.

Since 2008, however, Scotland has tried to improve its recording of the relevance of substances in DRDs and cannabis has only been mentioned in one DRD, in 2008, as a result. Scotland also reports the number of DRDs where alcohol was also present but the 151 DRDs where alcohol was present with other substances must not be confused with the much higher number of deaths due to alcohol which runs at around 3,000 per year.

And that’s, probably, a good point to close on. A great deal of effort is put into looking at the less than 500 DRDs a year in Scotland whilst the industry that produces six times as many deaths receives massive encouragement from the Scottish government.


Full Entries


Tuesday 25th October 2016
Saturday 20th August 2016
Sunday 6th March 2016
Wednesday 3rd February 2016


Saturday 28th November 2015
Friday 27th November 2015
Monday 17th August 2015
Wednesday 15th July 2015
Friday 26th June 2015
Thursday 25th June 2015
Thursday 30th April 2015
Wednesday 29th April 2015
Wednesday 11th March 2015
Tuesday 3rd March 2015
Saturday 28th February 2015
Sunday 22nd February 2015

November 2014

Monday 24th November 2014
Saturday 8th November 2014

October 2014

September 2014

Wednesday 24th September 2014
Monday 1st September 2014

August 2014

Tuesday 26th August 2014
Saturday 16th August 2014
Tuesday 5th August 2014
Friday 1st August 2014

July 2014

Sunday 27th July 2014
Wednesday 23rd July 2014
Sunday 13th July 2014
Sunday 6th July 2014
Tuesday 1st July 2014

June 2014

Wednesday 25th June 2014
Tuesday 24th June 2014
Sunday 22nd June 2014
Monday 9th June 2014
Wednesday 4th June 2014

May 2014

Monday 26th May 2014
Sunday 18th May 2014
Wednesday 14th May 2014

April 2014

Sunday 13th April 2014
Saturday 5th April 2014
Thursday 3rd April 2014
Tuesday 1st April 2014

March 2014

Monday 31st March 2014
Tuesday 25th March 2014
Friday 21st March 2014
Monday 17th March 2014
Sunday 16th March 2014
Tuesday 11th March 2014
Tuesday 11th March 2014
Thursday 6th March 2014
Wednesday 5th March 2014
Saturday 1st March 2014

February 2014

Thursday 27th February 2014
Monday 24th February 2014
Wednesday 19th February 2014
Monday 17th February 2014
Thursday 13th February 2014
Monday 4th February 2014
Monday 3rd February 2014
Saturday 1st February 2014

January 2014

Thursday 28th January 2014
Thursday 23rd January 2014
Friday 17th January 2014
Wednesday 15th January 2014
Monday 13th January 2014
Thursday 9th January 2014
Tuesday 7th January 2014
Wednesday 1st January 2014

December 2013

Monday 23rd December 2013
Friday 20th December 2013
Tuesday 17th December 2013
Friday 14th December 2013
Thursday 12th December 2013
Sunday 8th December 2013
Wednesday 4th December 2013
Sunday 1st December 2013

November 2013

Friday 29th November 2013
Wednesday 27th November 2013
Tuesday 26th November 2013
Friday 22nd November 2013
Monday 18th November 2013
Friday 15th November 2013
Thursday 14th November 2013
Sunday 10th November 2013
Thursday 7th November 2013
Wednesday 6th November 2013
Friday 1st November 2013

October 2013

Thursday 31st October 2013
Sunday 27th October 2013
Wednesday 23rd October 2013
Monday 21st October 2013
Friday 18th October 2013
Friday 11th October 2013
Wednesday 9th October 2013
Tuesday 8th October 2013
Monday 7th October 2013
Tuesday 1st October 2013

September 2013

Monday 30th September 2013
Saturday 28th September 2013
Friday 27th September 2013
Monday 23rd September 2013
Sunday 15th September 2013
Monday 9th September 2013
Tuesday 3rd September 2013
Sunday 1st September 2013

August 2013

Sunday 8th September 2013
Tuesday 3rd September 2013
Sunday 1st September 2013

Tuesday 27th August 2013
Sunday 25th August 2013
Monday 19th August 2013
Friday 16th August 2013
Tuesday 13th August 2013
Friday 9th August 2013
Friday 2nd August 2013
Thursday 1st August 2013

July 2013

Saturday 27th July 2013
Sunday 21st July 2013
Wednesday 17th July 2013
Monday 15th July 2013
Saturday 13th July 2013
Friday 12th July 2013
Thursday 11th July 2013
Wednesday 10th July 2013
Tuesday 9th July 2013
Saturday 6th July 2013

June 2013

Friday 28th June 2013
Tuesday 25th June 2013
Friday 21st June 2013
Thursday 20th June 2013
Wednesday 19th June 2013
Saturday 15th June 2013
Sunday 9th June 2013
Saturday 8th June 2013
Saturday 1st June 2013

May 2013

April 2013

March 2013

February 2013

January 2013

December 2012

November 2012

October 2012

September 2012

August 2012

July 2012 blog

June 2012 blog

May 2012 blog

April 2012 blog

March 2012 blog

February 2012 blog

January 2012 blog

December 2011 blog

November 2011 blog

October 2011 blog

September 2011 blog

August 2011 blog

July 2011 blog

June 2011 blog


The POISON GARDEN website is not connected with Alnwick Garden Enterprises Ltd and/or The Alnwick Garden Trust.