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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

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Tuesday 31st January 2012

Last August, I wrote that one of my intentions in writing a daily blog was to force me to keep myself up to date with new incidents or new research and in October I mentioned that new information does give me a problem with my ‘Lethal Lovelies’ talk because I want to keep adding new stories.

Today, as I began prepping for a talk on Thursday evening I’ve been confronting that dilemma, again. But, there is a new factor to be taken into account this time...more

Monday 30th January 2012

When Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination in 2008, it was usually said that his exploitation of electronic media and social networks, especially for fund-raising made all the difference. Since his election, he has continued to use the latest technologies to communicate with US citizens and to let them communicate with him.

In the latest new development, the President took part in a Google+ Hangout answering questions previously submitted either in text form or as YouTube videos. The event was billed as a chance for the public to follow-up on things included in the recent State of the Union address. The stream, at least for me, had its hiccups so there is still a way to go for this sort of communication to be easy to follow...more

Sunday 29th January 2012

By chance, I came across a mention of a poisoning incident involving Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade, on an internet forum and was able to learn more about it.

I won’t give any more details of where I came across it or from whom but it is, I think, worth giving some detail about it as it points up a number of lessons...more

Saturday 28th January 2012

If you’ve come to this page directly, you may not realise that this the second part of a two part analysis of ‘Drug Legalisation: An Evaluation of the Impacts on Global Society’ described as a ‘Position Statement’ and appearing on The International Task Force on Strategic Drug Policy (ITFSDP) website.

That first part looked at the first two pages of the statement and though this second part will, again, draw attention to flawed logic, unevidenced claims and circular contradictions within the document, I think it is worth looking at them individually rather than just saying pages three to six contain more of the same...more

Friday 27th January 2012

I’ve been reading ‘Drug Legalisation: An Evaluation of the Impacts on Global Society’. It describes itself as a ‘Position Statement’ and appears on The International Task Force on Strategic Drug Policy (ITFSDP) website. It is not, however, the sole work of the ITFSDP. At the end of the statement it says it is ‘issued’ by nine groups (I won’t list them all here). The ITFSDP is best known for its mouthpiece, David Raynes, who latest pronouncement came in a letter to the Telegraph, following Richard Branson’s appearance before the HASC, in which he seems to blame the rise in drug use on those who have dared to discuss drug policy.

The challenge with evaluating a document like this is the need to avoid making a personal attack on the author. In this case, that is easy to do since the statement gives no indication of who has authored it. That does, however, mean that one cannot assess the qualifications of the author and, given that no references are given, it is impossible to determine the value of the ‘evidence’ behind the statement. It would be wrong to assume that David Raynes had a role in its drafting though its many flaws do match his usual style...more

Thursday 26th January 2012

Sometimes it is very disappointing to be right but at other times it is worse when you find you are not right enough. Last Thursday evening I heard a trail for a programme on BBC Radio4 and, as I blogged on Monday, the trail said the programme would be asking why khat, Catha edulis, was still legal in the UK.

That one word ‘still’ worried me and I feared the programme would make the assumption a ban was required and, after presenting the evidence from both sides, it would come down in favour of a ban. I was right about the programme being on the side of a ban but not right about it presenting both sides...more

Wednesday 25th January 2012

To Canterbury. Regular readers will know how pleased I am to be able to write those two words after the frustration of my cancelled trip to Glasgow in December. Today was a very marked contrast to then and the weather was almost too warm for travelling, especially as the train carriage I was in had the heating turned up enough to defeat an Antarctic winter. But I did get to do a lot of drugs.

I'd forgotten just how useful long train journeys are for catching up on reading and research and, as it turned out, failing to reach a mutually useful relationship with East Coast wi-fi didn't cause any problems because I'd got more than enough to do without adding to it by accessing the Internet...more

Tuesday 24th January 2012

I wasn’t able to watch the live stream from the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) as it interviewed its first witness for its inquiry into government drug policy. Because that first witness was Virgin boss, Richard Branson, there has been plenty of media coverage before the event and there will be plenty after, I’m sure. That coverage will very much cherry pick the best sound bites so I’ll wait until I can read the full account or watch a recording of the whole session.

Yesterday, ahead of his appearance, Branson had an article published in the Daily Telegraph setting out his views on drug policy. That article, together with the announcement that he would be the first witness to appear before the HASC inquiry, provoked quite a lot of comment from all sections of the drug debate...more

Monday 23rd January 2012

Today, I’ve been looking at more recent developments, if any, in some of the stories I’ve blogged about in recent weeks.

I’ve divided it up by topic and clicking the headline to each segment will take you to the original blog entry...more

Sunday 22nd January 2012

I said, yesterday, that I thought I should try and see if I could find further information on any of the poisoning incidents I’ve written about over recent months in the hope that ‘suspected’ poisons could be deemed to be ‘proven’ or ‘unproven’ and I will.

But, today, I thought I’d update three other recent stories, even though only one has any information to update...more

Saturday 21st January 2012

Back in July, I wrote about the accidental poisoning of two giraffes at the zoo in Tucson after they were fed with oleander cuttings from hedges around the zoo. At the time, I noted that the zoo had started fund-raising to have the oleander bushes removed. A look at the zoo’s website shows that removal went ahead in September but, it appears, local garden contractors offered their services free of charge so, perhaps, other fund-raising didn’t suffer.

Now, comes a story from Bermuda of the death of eight cows from suspected oleander poisoning. Though it doesn't sat, I'm assuming the plant concerned is Nerium oleander rather than Thevetia peruviana, yellow oleander, as the latter is more usually associated with Asia. The incident occurred last November and the linked story reports the results of testing that has confirmed that the animals died after being fed oleander leaves. It is suggested that this was an accident resulting from an unknown member of the public including the toxic leaves in a mixture of foliage fed to the cattle as a treat but the farmer concerned accepts that the actual route by which the poisoning occurred will never be known...more

Friday 20th January 2012

My ‘Lethal Lovelies’ talk is divided into sections so as to allow the audience to see progress and, as I always say, have an idea of how much longer they need to try and stay awake. The final section is headed ‘The Phantastica’ and, unsurprisingly, deals with the psychoactive plants.

There is usually a reaction when the first plant that appears is Camellia sinensis, the tea plant. Not everyone realises that tea contains caffeine and, even if they do, people don’t immediately think of caffeine as in the same category as, say, marijuana or alcohol...more

Thursday 19th January 2012

On Monday afternoon, I watched the live stream of a lecture being given by Professor David Nutt to The University of Edinburgh Division of Psychiatry. I don’t know if it is going to be available to watch but, if it is, it should be accessible from this page of the university’s site. Because I’m in the Scottish Borders where very little is fast and certainly not the broadband, the stream was frequently disrupted though I think I got the gist.

Actually, I wasn’t too worried by that because, although next week’s talk in Kent has a different title ‘Science and non-science in drug policy: how politics compounds harm’ I’m sure they’ll be some overlap of material and, if I had enjoyed a perfect stream from Edinburgh I might be wishing I hadn't made non-refundable travel bookings...more

Wednesday 18th January 2012

I was reading a paper about the effect of giving calcium to someone suffering digoxin poisoning. It turns out that what ‘every doctor knows’, giving calcium to a person with a digoxin overdose is inevitably fatal, isn’t so. The paper was written for doctors and much of it went well over my head but it got me thinking about William Withering.

Dr. Withering is a hero of mine and I often mention him in my talks when comparing historic beliefs about plants and their effects, based on folklore and superstition, with modern scientific discoveries. Withering was the first to document the effects of using Digitalis plants, foxgloves and I believe his 1785 ‘An Account of the Foxglove’ is the first publication of a systematic trial of a substance...more

Tuesday 17th January 2012

My father taught me morals by using parables. That is to say, he didn’t tell me to do this or not to do that, he told me stories about what he had done (or said he had done) to illustrate moral points. I remember one of his stories was about the problems you can get yourself into by telling lies especially if other people can easily find out that you were lying.

Nearly a week since the adjournment debate on khat that I wrote about the day after it happened, Mark Lancaster MP’s own website still has the ridiculous statement that 10 million tonnes of khat enters the UK every week. But, now comes an even more egregious claim from the UNODC about heroin...more

Monday 16th January 2012

I could never be a librarian. I’m just not methodical enough. My own library is roughly divided into subject areas – murder, psychoactives, herbals, folklore – but the books are not in A to Z order. A similar situation arises with my hard drive where I give files names that suggest what they may be about but don’t always succeed in keeping things in the right folders.

My philosophy is that it will take me less time to have to search around for a specific piece of information than to organise my records so that every possible piece of information is instantly available. And that seems to work...more

Sunday 15th January 2012

There have been a number of stories, recently, about alcohol so I thought, today, I’d take a quick look at some of them.

The debate about how alcohol should be perceived continues. The existing government guidelines are said to be misunderstood because they give a recommended weekly maximum intake but stop short of saying how that intake should be spread across the week. There was a suggestion, in 1995, following reports that alcohol could have a protective effect against coronary heart disease (CHD), that daily limits should be used as the message but this never fully happened so that further confusion arose...more

Saturday 14th January 2012

There is always a problem with data that relates to the whole world. Different countries have different levels of quality when it comes to compiling statistics and they may use different definitions that can determine how a similar event is classified in different places.

When I wanted to get an idea of how many people get murdered every year, I decided to take the first number I found and recognise that it is bound to be highly inaccurate...more

Friday 13th January 2012

The annual UNODC Afghanistan Opium Survey has been published with details of the 2011 Papaver somniferum crop. Right from the first paragraph of the Preface the flaws in thinking resulting from the prohibitionist stance are apparent. The report begins ‘Each year, Afghan opium claims tens of thousands of lives worldwide’ and the second paragraph says ‘[Afghanistan] also faces an HIV epidemic concentrated among the country’s injecting drug users’.

Many of those thousands die as a result of engagement with criminals or a criminal lifestyle being a necessary part of obtaining heroin. Others suffer because they overdose on heroin of a higher strength than they are used to and others fall prey to illness and infection resulting from the dirty conditions in which they use their heroin. And being an IDU doesn’t mean you are at greater risk of contracting HIV. Having to use other people’s needles because the law refuses you the chance to obtain sterile equipment is the problem..more

Thursday 12th January 2012

On 25th December, I wrote about the scheduling of a House of Commons Adjournment Debate for 11th January at which Milton Keynes MP, Mark Lancaster, would speak about Catha edulis, khat. I didn’t at that time know what Mr Lancaster’s position on khat was or how extensive his knowledge about it.

Now that the debate has happened and been fully reported in Hansard, the official record of parliamentary proceedings, (the debate starts about halfway down the page) it is clear that Mr Lancaster believes khat should be banned and that his knowledge about it is not very extensive...more

Wednesday 11th January 2012

If you’ve read much of this website or, better still, if you are the proud owner of the wonderful ‘Is That Cat Dead? – and other questions about poison plants’ you will have realised that I don’t have a lot of time for superstition and unproven beliefs.

Or, rather, I have a lot of time for them in terms of being interested in trying to understand what makes people believe some of the very silly things they do and trying to see the rationale behind those beliefs. Sometimes, for example with Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade, you can understand the story about the devil owning the plant in terms of its deterrent effect on children who might be tempted to try the toxic berries. But then there are the ones, like the notion that standing on the crushed root of a Helleborus plant will make one invisible that seem to have no sensible source...more

Tuesday 10th January 2012

Writing a daily blog carries with it the risk of repeating yourself. As far as possible, I try to watch for that happening by searching previous entries to make sure I haven’t made the point I’m considering, or told the story that’s come to mind, before.

Today, however, I am going to, largely, repeat myself. One reason for doing that is that I know new people are reading this blog all the time, many as the result of mentions from Leon Gussow’s excellent The Poison Review for which I’m grateful. The other reason for today’s topic is that I’ve concluded that for as long as Kathy Gyngell continues to write about drugs as she does it is important to keep pointing out the nonsense that makes up quite a large part of that writing...more

Monday 9th January 2012

Though I’m well aware I may be having a Red Nissan Micra moment, it does seem that debate about the need for a change in drug policy is moving into the mainstream. That is not a clear cut conclusion because there are still plenty of signs that no-one is listening.

I’ll start with the negatives, partly because they may be part of the past rather than the future but also so I can end on a more positive tone...more

Sunday 8th January 2012

Before I began this daily blog I used to irregularly write about psychoactive substance use in the ‘Substance Abuse News’ pages of the Phantastica section of this site. One topic that I wrote about on more than one occasion was the outbreak of anthrax amongst heroin users, initially in Scotland but later in England and Germany.

By the time the outbreak was officially declared to be over, in December 2010, there had been 119 cases and 14 deaths. Health Protection Scotland (HPS) set up a National Anthrax Outbreak Control Team (NAOCT) and has now published a report detailing the outbreak, the response to it and making recommendations for dealing with any possible future anthrax infections resulting from contaminated heroin...more

Saturday 7th January 2012

The two pandas currently on an extended visit to Edinburgh Zoo don’t seem to have been the success the Scottish Nationalist government hoped for, so far. From rows about the total cost to the exposure of the cost to taxpayers for the welcome party that politicians said would be fully sponsored to the contrived Twitter spat after the female was named on a shortlist for the title ‘Woman of the Year’, bringing these two animals from China to show that Scotland is a proper country capable of having international relations doesn’t seem to be working.

I almost feel sorry for these poor animals that, probably, shouldn’t be alive if nature had been allowed to take its course. It is impossible to separate the impact of the human race on other species from what would have happened if we weren’t around but I’m pretty sure that pandas are an evolutionary cul de sac..more

Friday 6th January 2012

I started out to write this entry about two completely disparate items I’ve read that have a common theme but I now have to add a third showing that the shared hope of the first two is already being subverted.

This is a story about what’s wrong with the way we discuss issues, what could be done to put it right and why people who don’t want sensible discussions are already undermining that solution...more

Thursday 5th January 2012

Though I understand that making numerical comparisons year on year is useful, I’m less happy about qualitative judgements made that way. How can, say, 2008 be a better year for TV than 2007? That judgement might be based on one particularly good drama series so forcing it into a year on year comparison seems a little odd to me.

I think, however, as early as it is in 2012, we can be pretty sure that this year will be a bad one for deaths from mushroom poisoning. This follows the death of two people in Australia after eating Amanita phalloides, the death cap mushroom, on New Year’s Eve. A third is said to be in urgent need of a liver transplant and a fourth suffered only mild symptoms and was treated as an outpatient...more

Wednesday 4th January 2012

Time for a final look at the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) 2010 Annual Report of the National Poison Data System (NPDS). Previous entries looked at the specific deaths due to plants, the issue of whether some poisons attract more attention and a general review of what the report says about plant poisonings.

Today, I want to look at some of the plant derived substances that get reported in other categories..more

Tuesday 3rd January 2012

It often seems to me that many arguments could be settled very quickly if only one or other of the disputants said ‘That may be what you heard but it is not what I said’. People place their own interpretation on what is being said to them, often without realising it, and draw completely the wrong conclusion about what the other party meant.

It happens in politics all the time, though often it is deliberate misunderstanding in order to try and make a political opponent look bad. In the last couple of days, papers from 30 years ago appear to show the then Conservative government in a bad light but, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time has tried to explain, this results from putting a meaning on the contentious statement that was not intended...more

Monday 2nd January 2012

In one of his routines the Australian comedian, Tim Minchin, talks about the way that everybody has ‘a line’ when it comes to subjects that are acceptable to them for use in comedy. He maintains that even the most open-minded of people, who profess to liking broad, edgy comedy, will suddenly find themselves offended when their personal ‘line’ is crossed.

I’ve always been aware that there are some things I just don’t find funny and, if I’m watching one of those late-night comedy programmes that starts with the continuity announcer talking about ‘strong language, adult themes and scenes of a sexual nature’ I realise that I may find something offensive but that is my fault for ignoring the warning...more

Sunday 1st January 2012

I’ve been catching up with the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures broadcast over three evenings on BBC Four. I’ve watched this annual lecture series, off and on, for about as long as it has been televised though I did miss most of them when, for a time, they were broadcast on a commercial station so had the apparently mandatory ‘coming up in the next part’ before each advert break.

Happily, they are back on the BBC and free from the interference of TV ‘language’. Or, rather, almost free because I can’t help noticing that the BBC and the listings magazine I have refers to them as the ‘Christmas Lectures’ whereas the lecturer, correctly, welcomed the audience to the ‘Christmas Lectures for Children’...more