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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 8th October 2012

Some years ago, during a residential training course, I picked up a book about wild flower identification. In the introduction, the author said he had decided to write the plant equivalent of the books that tell you how to identify birds. He then said that plant identification was much harder than birds because there were only 50 or so species of bird to learn whereas there are hundreds of wild plants.

The flaw in that argument was immediately apparent; wild plants don’t fly off into the nearest tree as soon as you get close enough for a good look and birds don’t allow you to pull bits off to take home and compare with the pictures in your books or online.

I thought about this after seeing two stories about the consequences of failing to properly identify plants. Or, rather, a plant; Cannabis sativa, marijuana.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

Cannabis sativa, marijuana

The first story comes from Canada where the Calgary Sun reported  that the 1,624 plants removed, at the end of July, by the police from a suburban garden and then carefully counted and catalogued were, in fact, a species of daisy. The picture accompanying the story does show the problem; both plants have green leaves and some sort of flower.

The Calgary Sun takes great delight, and why wouldn’t you, in repeating what was said about the seizure at the time and pointing out that comments about the significance of the bust came not from just any old cop but rather from ‘the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit of the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Team — supposedly the best drug squad this province has to offer’.

A daisy

A daisy

It is a funny story and I probably shouldn’t spoil it by pointing out that many drug busts result in completely inaccurate accounts from the authorities whose desire is to show what a great job they are doing. Usually this involves a ‘think of a number and treble it’ estimate of the value of the drugs seized.

The other story is, in some ways, very similar to one of the ‘incidents’ I include on the plant page for cannabis. That story is;

A resident of a respectable suburb in Brisbane bought two plants from a market stall. In his hurry, he didn’t notice what else was on the stall. Some weeks later, with plants growing well either side of his front door, a neighbour asked him if he knew it was illegal to grow cannabis. When he saw the stall, the following week, he realised that all the other goods on sale were connected with growing and smoking cannabis.

This new story of innocent misidentification originated with a tweet from Bedford Local Police Team. It said that officers had seized the ‘biggest cannabis plant we had seen’ from the garden of an elderly couple who had bought it at a car boot sale. If you follow that second link, you’ll see it is a pretty impressive plant.

It took two days for the Mail Online to latch onto the tweet and produce its own version of the story, a version which is made a great deal more dramatic by copious use of the words ‘bust and ‘busted’.

The Mail Online is, of course, anti-drugs so I have to ask why it decided that the best way to end its piece was by providing a link to a website giving detailed guidance for ‘grow your own’ novices. I suppose it is the same sort of thinking that leads it to publish pieces condemning sexual exploitation alongside menu items about how sexy 15-year old girls look.

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