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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

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Saturday 31st March 2012

Once again, a piece of plant folklore turns out to be completely untrue. Pulsatilla vulgaris, the pasque flower,, is said to flower on Good Friday though I haven’t been able to determine why that is said. It may be that the flower closes up at the end of the day and was, therefore, covering its face at the sight of Jesus Christ crucified.

I’ve noticed before that it doesn’t always obey its own folklore and, on a visit to a friend’s, I saw it in full bloom a good eight days before Good Friday...more

Friday 30th March 2012

As I was skimming through the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) first batch of written submissions on Wednesday, I noticed one submission that was taking great lumps out of Professor David Nutt for no reason other than that he has dared to say that policy should be based on evidence.

Just because, I decided to search for his name throughout the document and see how many times it appears and in what circumstances. By my count, his name appears a total of 83 times, though 14 of those are as part of references. 37 of the 182 submissions make reference to Professor Nutt. (To complete the maths, his name appears more than once in a number of the submissions.)...more

Thursday 29th March 2012

I wrote, yesterday, that I found only one reference to Catha edulis, khat, in the written submissions to the HASC inquiry into drugs policy. Today, thanks to a Tweet from Harry Sumnall, I’ve been reading a 93 page monograph from Australia on the subject.

I was struck by the similarity between the issues concerning the need for and method of achieving control of the availability of khat in Australia with the situation concerning Cannabis sativa, marijuana, in the USA...more

Wednesday 28th March 2012

The optimistic part of me thinks UK Members of Parliament work very hard to fulfil their functions. I say this because, today, the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) has published the first batch of written submissions made to its inquiry into government drugs policy. It runs to 728 pages and over 340,000 words so it is a big read even if, like the committee members, you’ve been able to read the submissions as they arrived from January to March.

The pessimistic part of me, however, worries that some of the committee members could have passed the full submissions to a researcher asking for each 2,500 word (maximum) document to be reduced to an easy to read 100 words...more

Tuesday 27th March 2012

One, informal, definition of addiction is that it is the compulsion to keep doing the same thing over and over again knowing that it will end badly but convincing yourself that this time it will be different.

By that definition, I am an addict but my excuse is that I know my ‘same thing’ doesn’t have to end badly because it once almost ended well and I believe it can again...more

Monday 26th March 2012

The family was setting out its picnic on a bench looking over the cricket field adjacent to Bamburgh Castle as we walked up this lunchtime. When I began ‘I hope you don’t mind me saying…’ their faces all showed concern that I might be about to tell them they were committing some dreadful transgression but when I continued ‘…it is March’ they turned to smiles.

Almost every year, we get a period of unusually pleasant weather and every year we assume that it is an early summer only to find shortly after that we are very wrong, but the pleasant weather is very rarely as pleasant as it was today...more

Sunday 25th March 2012

The early end to a winter that never really got going continues and, today, it was almost like a summer’s day out in the garden. The bright sunshine drew my attention to the early growth on my Bryonia dioica, white bryony.

I’ve written before about the bryony 25th July mostly about its use to make a fake mandrake root so that ‘mountebanks and fakers’ could take advantage of the alleged aphrodisiac properties of Mandragora officinarum, mandrake...more

Saturday 24th March 2012

When I wrote about this week’s talk, I didn’t mention that one of the questions asked was about herbal medicine/homeopathy. I didn’t mention it because it is a very common question and, quite often, reveals the confusion between herbal preparations, that may contain a high percentage of a plant extract, and homeopathy, which contains nothing.

Herbal remedies may have a beneficial effect as a result of the plant extract though that effect may not be as great as a mainstream alternative, which is why they remain herbal medicines rather than just medicines. And, of course, they carry the same risk of overdose as any other substance. Homeopathic preparations rely entirely on the placebo effect for any changes in a patient’s condition...more

Friday 23rd March 2012

The Tweed Forum Invasives Project (TFIP) has published its latest annual report The project is primarily concerned with Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed, and Fallopia japonica, Japanese knotweed, though it is, as far as possible, also trying to address the situation with Impatiens glandulifera, Himalayan balsam.

Though Japanese knotweed is a threat to infrastructure because of the strength of its roots and Himalayan balsam crowds out native plants, it is only giant hogweed that causes physical harm to humans so that is the plant I’m interested in...more

Thursday 22nd March 2012

Whenever I’m asked about what plant causes the highest death toll I always cite Nicotiana tabacum, tobacco, with plants that are used to produce alcohol coming second. But, some news stories published today have led me to realise that it can be difficult to get a clear idea of just how many deaths are due to alcohol and whether there is an upward trend in the number.

This morning’s news on the TV had an item about the increase in deaths in England resulting from liver disease. The number of such deaths resulting from alcohol and the ages of people dying from alcohol-induced liver disease were the main points covered...more

Wednesday 21st March 2012

In the USA, this is National Poison Prevention Week. This is one of those times when there is a real difference between spoken and written English. If I told you it is poison prevention week you wouldn’t realise that I meant it is Poison Prevention Week.

Because, of course, every week ought to be poison prevention week. “Mum, the baby’s eating your lipstick.” “Leave him alone, poison prevention week was last week.”...more

Tuesday 20th March 2012

It’s unusual for a talk to take place in the morning. The majority of my talks are evening affairs though a few are in the afternoon. Thinking about it, today’s was only my third morning talk and they’ve all been to male only audiences.

Four years ago, I gave a talk to the Willow Club in Whitley Bay. That is a one-off club for retired men of all backgrounds and had, in those days, over 100 members. At the time, I was told that the average age of members was in the late seventies and there were real fears that a club that started in 1937 might be facing an uncertain future if more younger men couldn’t be found to join...more

Monday 19th March 2012

After the excitement of yesterday's blog entry (three people retweeted my tweet announcing it and the number of people who visited the page exploded), I thought I'd go for a peaceful rural post after this morning's walk along the River Tweed near Norham.

It is a particularly well tended stretch of river so many of the poisonous plants presently putting in an appearance are unlikely to survive to full maturity but it just goes to show they are there and most people pay no attention to them...more

Sunday 18th March 2012

The good thing about writing a blog is that you are free to say ‘I told you so’ if something you’ve predicted turns out to be true.

The bad thing about writing a blog is that you are free to say ‘I told you so’ if something you’ve predicted turns out to be true...more

Saturday 17th March 2012

The Internet is, of course, an indispensable resource when it comes to finding out what’s new and it is becoming an increasingly useful tool for researching history as more and more archive material is digitised. But I was a little taken aback when an article that I expected to be something new turned out to be nearly forty years old.

But I was delighted when I realised that it might provide the answer to a riddle that has troubled me about the Laburnum tree for some time...more

Friday 16th March 2012

It’s been a busy week for those involved in drug policy. The Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) has been holding its annual meeting in Vienna and, on Tuesday evening, Intellgence2 held a debate, in London and streamed live, on the motion ‘It’s Time to End the War on Drugs’.

CND ‘reviews and analyses the global drug control situation, considering the interrelated issues of prevention of drug abuse, rehabilitation of drug users and supply and trafficking in illicit drugs’ according to the UNODC website What that means is its annual meeting is a chance for the UN and individual countries to go on about what a great job they are doing implementing the UN conventions as they relate to psychoactive substances...more

Thursday 15th March 2012

In those few seconds spent concentrating on setting off in the car rather than deciding what to have on the radio, I heard an introduction to an item that caused me to set aside my long-standing rule not to listen to BBC Radio4’s ‘You and Yours’ programme. It was about a report that found UK domestic energy prices are amongst the lowest in Europe.

Gas and electricity prices are triggers for hysterical reactions from people about ‘rip-off Britain’ and ‘fat cats’ profiteering so I was interested to learn more about this report. Sadly, this was ‘You and Yours’ so the interviewer wasn’t about to abandon the entrenched position that big business must be bad...more

Wednesday 14th March 2012

Shortly after coming to office in 2010, the UK Home Secretary, Theresa May, wrote to the chair of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) setting out her view of what work it should be undertaking and what her priorities were for the results of that work.

Such letters have become an annual event, at least for as long as Ms May remains in that job, and her latest was published on 12th March. It can be read online...more

Tuesday 13th March 2012

After Sunday’s blog was written I sent a further email to the New Zealand National Poisons Centre (NZNPC). I said that I found it confusing that they didn’t include accidental ingestion of Cannabis sativa, marijuana, by children in the field ‘Chemical/Drugs of Abuse’ since they broke down the category by intent one of which was ‘Child/exploratory’.

The reply I received rather added to the confusion because, this time, the Poison Information Officer said that these cases were included under ‘Plants’ since cannabis is a plant. In the first email, he had said these cases were classified as ‘Miscellaneous’ so the first problem was a lack of consistency..more

Monday 12th March 2012

Confusion over common names for plants caused me some excitement for a little while after one of my Google alerts took me to this item, ‘Biocontrol agents make their mark’ in Farmers Weekly.

The article is about the possibility that biological control agents, which have been used for many years in controlled environments like greenhouses, may be about to enter the world of arable farming. One reason for this is that increasing regulation and pressure from supermarkets is making chemical controls more difficult and costly to use...more

Sunday 11th March 2012

A story from New Zealand immediately caught my attention. Any doubt about the meaning of the headline ‘Babies and elderly suffering from 'poison' dope’ was immediately removed by the first sentence of the piece ‘Babies are swallowing cannabis left lying around by their parents, calls to the National Poisons Centre show’.

As soon as I read the words ‘Poisons Centre’ I start to wonder if this was going to be another story being selective about what it decides is important. That is what I found in the 2010 American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) Annual Report...more

Saturday 10th March 2012

A number of brief items pointing to quite a bit of interesting reading on a variety of topics, some related to previous blog entries but one or two new subjects...more

Friday 9th March 2012

Three things saw me praising the Internet, today, though the third also involved quite a bit of cursing. The first two provided demonstrations of the importance of not having to rely on the printed media for information because, sadly, press reporting is all too often lazy or prejudiced.

UK law prevents people being deported to countries where they are likely to face inhuman treatment, including detention without trial, torture or execution. The Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) hears appeals from those ordered to be deported who feel that would place them in danger...more

Thursday 8th March 2012

As usual, the annual report of the International Narcotic Control Board (INCB) has been followed by the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) from the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, part of the United States Department of State.

Before looking at that report, I wanted to mention this English translation of a letter from Bolivia’s Minister Of Foreign Affairs, David Choquehuanca Céspedes, to the Secretary General of the INCB. As well as, justifiably, objecting to the ridiculous claim that Bolivia’s actions threaten the whole world’s drug control regime, the minister points out that the INCB’s charter says it can offer advice on what actions to take on implementing the UN conventions if requested so to do by the country concerned...more

Wednesday 7th March 2012

I mentioned, yesterday, that BBC1’s ‘Countryfile’ programme (link good until 11th march) cited a piece of folklore specific to the Taxus baccata, yew, growing in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church, Painswick in Gloucestershire. The story says that there are 99 yew trees in the churchyard because if ever a hundredth is planted the devil pulls it out.

I’ll return to the topic of area specific folklore in a moment but I wanted to comment on two things that the presenter, Matt Baker, said about the yew trees in St Mary’s churchyard..more

Tuesday 6th March 2012

All bar one of my talks are edited down from having too much material to fit the required time slot so it is quite a change to deliver, as I did this evening, the one that had to be grown from something smaller.

When I was asked to give a twenty minute after dinner talk, a couple of years ago, I decided to focus on plants found in the local area as a way of confining the potential length. The initial working title of ‘Poisonous Plants in Berwickshire’ became ‘Some Poisonous plants in Berwickshire’ when I realised that trying to cover all of them would take much longer than twenty minutes....more

Monday 5th March 2012

On BBC1’s ‘Breakfast’ programme this morning there was an item about a new campaign founded by parents who have lost children to drugs and including Mitch Winehouse, Amy’s father, and Vicky Unwin, whose daughter Louise died after using ketamine, calling for drugs education to be made compulsory in schools. Most of the piece can be seen on the BBC website.

Vicky Unwin mentioned her involvement with the Angelus Foundation and that reminded me of the second evidence session of the Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into drugs policy that I watched a few days ago...more

Sunday 4th March 2012

I took some friends to Newcastle Airport this morning for the start of their trip to Australia to meet their new granddaughter and, as I was passing the door, I thought I would stop in to the Alnwick Garden on the way back. I visit so infrequently these days that I’ve cancelled my ‘Friends’ membership but my card is still valid until June so it seemed like a way to get some value from last year’s payment without any fuel costs.

But, I reckoned without the weather. The forecast possibility of light rain turned out to be fairly heavy rain with a tendency to turn into sleet and also, briefly, full on snow. It never got bad enough to make driving a problem but it was leaving a light coating of white on the roadside verges..more

Saturday 3rd March 2012

I’ve been keeping an eye on reports from Tennessee of the deaths of seven horses in Maury County. As usual, the initial reports contained speculation about what might have caused the deaths and I have been waiting, in vain so far, for any follow-ups.

The initial reports spoke of seven horses dying on a single farm and noted that three other horses on the same farm seemed to be perfectly OK. Not surprisingly, within days it was being reported that other animal deaths in the area were being investigated to see if they were linked...more

Friday 2nd March 2012

I wrote on Monday that I’d been talking to someone about Narcissus, daffodil, poisoning. What I didn’t explain was that it was a freelance journalist who was trying to run down rumours of an outbreak of poisoning and wanted some background for the piece he hoped to write if the rumours turned out to be true.

I don’t know how he was getting on with his investigative journalism but he could save himself a lot of time now because this story appeared on the BBC website today...more

Thursday 1st March 2012

When I wrote about the 2010 American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) Annual Report 4th jan I noted that many substances resulted in a higher number of fatalities than the two directly attributed to plants but that they received much less attention.

A recent report from America concerned an accidental death arising from one such substance. I won’t name the substance at this point for reasons that will become clear later on. The story concerned a 14-year old girl who, without her parents being aware, attended a party where alcohol and cannabis were available and was persuaded to try the substance that took her life...more