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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 11th May 2013

There are some stories about plants that keep being told and the question, for me, is whether to respond to them every time they get repeated. Things like the claimed harmful potential from ricin, the poison found in Ricinus communis, castor oil plant, or the alleged risk to horses from Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort, regularly feature in all forms of online media.

I try, and almost certainly fail, to find a balance between simply repeating previous pieces on every occasion and making sure that spurious claims are refuted in the hope that anyone seeking information with an open mind has access to all the information. I’ll probably write more about this, as far as ricin is concerned, shortly.

Today, though, I want to write about another of the regulars; Datura stramonium, jimsonweed, thornapple.

Some days ago, I saw a story on a CBS local news website ‘Teens Now Getting High On Hallucinogenic Flowers’. As the headline suggests, it was another story about young people experimenting with the psychoactive properties of a plant that grows wild in many parts of the USA (and the UK, for that matter).

Datura stramonium, jimsonweed, thornapple

Datura stramonium, jimsonweed, thornapple

I suppose because this was a news broadcast the producers felt they had to claim that psychoactive use of Datura was a ‘new’ drug though they rather undermined their own claim by talking about the alleged number of incidents every year. In the written report, there was a claim that struck me as odd and I tried to trace it to its source. I hadn’t intended to write about it until I’d found out more but I changed my mind, this morning, after the Mail Online reported on the story and made this claim part of its headline;

‘The deadly household plant that teens are using to get high and kills hundreds each year’

‘Hundreds each year’

The CBS written report says;

‘Thousands are hospitalized and hundreds are killed by Datura use every year, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.’

That struck me as a very odd claim for the AAPCC to make because its annual reports make no mention of such a high death toll. I sent a Tweet to the AAPCC asking them if they stood by that claim but received no reply.

This morning, whilst preparing this piece, I watched the video of the story on the CBS site and found something very interesting.

The soundtrack of the report says;

‘Thousands chase this flower’s high all the way to the hospital each year according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers like this young man who had to be restrained in his bed. Hundreds more chase it to the grave.’

So, the line about hundreds dying is not directly attributed to the AAPCC by the reporter. The conflation comes from the sub-editor who prepared the written version.

Brugmansia versicolor

Brugmansia versicolor, similar to Datura

The Mail Online has, I assume, produced its report from the CBS story rather than directly and has taken the wrong attribution as being correct and elevated its importance. After reading the Mail I sent another Tweet to the AAPCC but, so far, I haven’t received a reply.

There are two ways to examine this claim of widespread deaths. You can look at the research or you can read the Mail Online. I have looked at the research in a previous blog and found that the number of incidents may be in the hundreds per year, rather than the thousands apparently claimed by the AAPCC and found that, historically, around one third of poisonings prove to be fatal. I wrote ‘historically’ because, like all medicine, advances have been made that will have increased the number of people able to recover from what would have been a fatal dose.

Reading the Mail Online archives is very interesting;

‘The deadly witch doctor's plant sweeping Britain’ from October 2006 calls Datura stramonium a ‘lethal weed’ but gives no indication that it causes widespread fatalities.

‘March of the poison 'triffid' in our gardens’ appeared later the same month and called the plant ‘poisonous’ but made no mention of any deaths.

‘Hallucinogenic Amazonian plant used to poison spear tips found growing in Suffolk garden’ from 7th August 2009  refers to ‘death in severe cases’ but doesn’t suggest that the numbers are significant.

Later that same month ‘Pensioner finds deadly tropical plant made famous in Harry Potter book in her back garden’ said that ‘The exotic plant can cause hallucinations, blurred vision, coma or even death’ but didn’t make any claim about a high number of deaths.

A year later, it was ‘Deadly and hallucinogenic Amazonian plant shoots up in British garden... after bird 'drops seed'’  with the plant being called ‘potentially lethal if ingested’. (That claim is worrying because most intentional users smoke the plant so saying 'lethal if ingested' could cause a mistaken belief that smoking is OK.)

That’s five chances the Mail has had to warn readers about these ‘hundreds of deaths’, if its latest claim were true, and instead it has given the impression death is rare.

A plant this dangerous should, clearly, be viewed with suspicion so you wouldn’t think a responsible publication would encourage its spread. If it is really killing ‘hundreds a year’ it would be very wrong to suggest ‘For a larger pot with fragrance and stature, try datura’ in a gardening column  but that is exactly what the Mail did in April 2011.

I would never encourage anyone to take any psychoactive substance but especially not one derived directly from a poisonous plant because differences in climate, soil and stage of development all affect the concentration of the alkaloids and it is impossible to know what dose a user is receiving. I’m most certainly not saying ‘Datura doesn’t cause hundreds of deaths – fill your boots’.

What I am saying, and I’ve said it plenty of times before, is that overstating the effects of psychoactive substances does not reduce their use. If anything it increases it by undermining the credibility of those giving information to young people.

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