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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 1st September 2014

I’m giving my third talk in four years to a local WI in a few days. They’ve had ‘Lethal Lovelies’ and ‘Medical Murderers’ so, after discussing options with the secretary, it is going to be ‘The Phantastica’ this time.

I haven’t delivered this talk for quite a while. Most groups prefer the more light-hearted topics of accidental deaths from eating the wrong berries or making a poor choice of doctor and having rather more morphine than is good for you. So, I decided to start almost from scratch and rebuild the whole presentation.

I like to try and have some sort of theme to take me from one plant to the next and for this I’ve settled on how words used about substances get misapplied and misunderstood. The UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs for example deals with substances that are not all narcotics. And it doesn’t include all drugs because most of would call aspirin or Viagra a ‘drug’.

There are plenty of other words that can be taken in different ways and that can allow arguments about how society should deal with these substances to get bogged down in confusion, sometimes intentionally.

There are people who will tell you that tobacco, Nicotiana tabacum, is not responsible for any excess deaths. And, of course, they are right. The corollary to the saying ‘You only live once’ is ‘You only die once’. Tobacco most definitely does bring that death sooner for 50% of those who use it regularly but it cannot produce more than one death per person.

Even a word like ‘addict’ may not be as simple to use as it appears. As well as people rightly complaining that ‘addict’ is used in a pejorative sense by the media there is research that questions the scientific understanding of what addiction means. The simple fact is that a great many ’addicts’ succeed in ending their substance use without outside assistance.

In preparing my talk I have, therefore, tried to make sure I use words that do not have subjective meanings but it requires care to avoid making it incomprehensible by so doing.

Publication of a new document from Transform Drug Policy Foundation (TDPF) ‘Debating Drugs: How to Make the Case for Legal Regulation’ illustrated some of the pitfalls. Whilst a more rational approach to the harms caused by some drug use requires the removal of existing laws so that substances that are presently illicit are licit, supporters of the existing regime have hijacked the word ‘legalisation’ to mean an uncontrolled free for all where no attempt is made to prevent use by anyone, including children, in any amount.

I have a problem with the TDPF document, which is that I agree with almost all of what it says. The reason that is a problem is that I can’t trust myself to examine it critically without letting my existing position colour my response.

What I would like would be to read the thoughts of someone who disagrees with TDPF (and me) to see if I find merit in their counter-arguments. I do have this underlying concern with the structure of the document. It puts forwards what it says are the arguments for prohibition and then presents the case against each individual argument. That is open to the possibility that arguments are being presented that prohibitionists would not espouse. It seems to me to be only a possibility because I have read prohibitionists making nearly all of the points TDPF sets up.

None the less, I would be happier if someone were to go through each argument and, if they confirm that it is a point put forward by those who share their opinion, then critique TDPF’s response to that point.

The trouble is the early signs are that this is not going to happen. Peter Hitchens, who is happy to write at enormous length about drugs, has refused to consider TDPF’s document and there is no sign, yet, that anyone else is going to attempt to demonstrate point by point that TDPF has got it wrong.

In that circumstance it is tempting to assume that the points presented are all valid and there is no counter-argument but that is not good enough. Though it has to be said that, while it is not correct to take one instance of failing to engage as proof of retreat, it becomes more acceptable when it happens more than once.

Recently on Twitter, someone asked for any published papers from recent times that have presented evidence for the efficacy of prohibition. No-one, as far as I’m aware, came forward.

It seems that, in the drug policy debate, words are not just misused and misunderstood; they are, also, missing. 

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