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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 6th November 2013

Online dictionaries generally have slight variations in the way they define words. ‘Holistic’ is sometimes defined as just dealing with the whole rather than the parts and sometimes the definition is made explicit to health by talking about treating a person as a whole rather than dealing with symptoms.

It is not a word I’m happy to use because it is mostly used by the charlatans and snake oil salesmen who try to offer a wholly spurious justification for their particular product or service. Claiming to be treating a person ‘holistically’ justifies bizarre procedures. I daresay Pliny’s remedy for toothache (pounding Hedera helix, ivy, with rose oil and the rind of a pomegranate to treat toothache but only if poured into the ear on the opposite side of the face) would be seen as ‘holistic’.

But it is a word I want to use today because it has struck me that there is a way to view this blog holistically.

The question of who one is writing for must be in the mind of any writer and I’m no different. Because my interest in poisonous plants and the substances extracted from them leads me into three distinct areas I wonder how a reader who comes here to read about one of those areas feels when I write about one of the others.

I should define those three areas. There is the general matter of how poisonous plants should be viewed and the incidents that arise. There is the whole field of biological weapons, focusing mainly on ricin. And there is the matter of psychoactive substance use and the policies surrounding it.

Until now, I hadn’t thought there was much of a link between ragwort, ricin and reefers. I do now and it is thanks to Peter Hitchens that I do.

Hitchens, regular readers will recall, took part in a debate with Professor Alex Stevens of Kent University. After he wrote about it, Prof. Stevens wrote a couple of pieces in response. You can find those pieces here and here. The second one started this train of thought because it begins;

‘A few people have asked me why I got involved in debates with Peter Hitchens, given the slim probability that he would change his opinions. I answered that I wanted to expose the weakness of his argument.’

But Prof. Stevens is not the only one willing to try and have a debate with Peter Hitchens. Alex Massie, of the Spectator, has done the same in writing rather than in person. I won’t try and give you links to the full chain of exchanges but the most recent from Massie is typical of the tangles you can get into trying to rationally counter an irrational argument.

Previously, I’ve said;

‘It is easy to characterise Peter Hitchens as a buffoon and his views as laughable but I realised that he is, in fact, a very dangerous man who, probably, increases the total harm caused by drugs.’

That comment was based on the central flaw in Hitchens’ argument and the problem with entering a debate with him is that everything is built on that flaw.

Hitchens believes Cannabis sativa, marijuana, is as harmful as heroin. It is as simple as that. All his bluster about ‘de facto decriminalisation’ and the rest is founded on his claim that the sanctions for offences related to cannabis should be exactly the same as those for heroin. When the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act included lower penalties for cannabis than heroin (but, remember, the penalties in the Act are higher than recommended by an expert committee) it was a clear recognition that the potential for cannabis to do harm is much less than for heroin.

There is nothing that can be done to change Hitchens’ mind about this. When challenged on it, he will run to anecdote or insult. He’ll find some story of someone who has come to harm and was a cannabis user and, regardless of any evidential connection, will claim that this typifies the effect of cannabis for every user. Or, he’ll make claims about the motivation of the debater to present them as morally bankrupt and that is why they wish to deny Hitchens’ view of the most popular psychoactive substance.

I won’t try and make the detailed case against Hitchens’ view. Anyone who gives a moment’s thought to the statistics for the number of users of cannabis versus the numbers of people who become problematic users and does the same for heroin can see that pot simply cannot be in the same league as heroin or our health service would have collapsed long ago.

The problem is that Hitchens is never going to be open to evidence and reason and his loyal audience isn’t going to bother to look at any figures when Hitchens’ version of the ‘Your life is shit and it is the fault of these people’ school of writing is so satisfying.

I’ve brought this up because, as I said, it has given me a route to see this blog ‘holistically’.

With poisonous plants in general, writers seem to feel that pointing out how infrequently harm is done takes away from the marketability of their work. And, of course, there is the special case of Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort, where actual harm done by the plant is greatly over-stated for a variety of reasons.

With ricin, the claims about its use as a terror weapon are always about its alleged potential because it is impossible to point to any actual mass terrorism incident.

And the same determination to ignore the mass experience is absolutely the case with cannabis.

My conclusion is that when challenging the views of anyone in all the different areas that interest me the Jerry Maguire Test is the essential basis. ‘Show me the bodies!’, because if you can’t your argument collapses.

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