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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 24th December 2012

Under the Doctrine of Signatures, Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane, was used for over 2,000 years as a treatment for toothache. The idea being that the mature seed pods lined along a stem look like a jawbone and a row of teeth.

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane

When I talk about this alleged property of a poisonous, hallucinogen I refer to its use in Anglo-Saxon times in Britain because that adds the dimension of not just a belief in quackery but the way in which quacks are happy to exploit their victims for gain.

That story is told in full here but, briefly, it centres around the Anglo-Saxon myth of a great worm cut into nine pieces by a hero. The worm, however, did not die but instead each of the nine pieces went on to become flying venoms that were the cause of all ills in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Incidentally, I haven’t got any further in trying to find out if the Egyptians used henbane to treat toothache since writing about the ‘Horrible Histories’ episode that said they, also, believed that toothache was caused by worms.

The reason for writing about this, today, is not to look at the effects of the plant but to examine the story that destroying the one great worm actually made matters worse by creating nine worms that were much harder to pin down.

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane

And, strange as it may seem, that brings us to Mexico and the fight against drug producers and smugglers that has claimed lives estimated to be around 60,000 in the last six years. I’ve written about these deaths a number of times. This time I’d just finished reading ‘El Narco’.

With the end to the presidency of Felipe Calderon and the arrival of President Enrique Peña Nieto, it is no surprise that the story of those years is back in the news. The new president moved swiftly to distance himself from Calderon’s way of dealing with the drug problem by announcing a new federal police force that will focus on dealing with the crimes associated with the drug trade, murder and kidnapping, rather than interdicting the supply. President Peña’s plans for a corruption free force able to tackle Mexico’s crime problem were immediately criticised on the basis that it will be impossible to find the 40,000 target manpower without relying on corrupt officers from existing forces.

As often happens with new regimes, the incoming government has been quick to set out what its predecessors did wrong. To this end, the new attorney general, Jesús Murillo Karam, has said that Calderon’s policy of going after the heads of cartels has resulted in fragmentation. Some people claim that, in 2006, when Calderon began his offensive, there were only two or three cartels of any importance. Murillo Karam said that the new government was working to identify the key players in the 60 to 80 small to medium cartels who have taken the place of those large organisations.

If true, it undermines Calderon’s claims, supported by the USA, that the huge sums spent on the war on drugs were worthwhile because the campaign resulted in the capture of 25 of the 37 most wanted drug bosses.

The ‘balloon effect’ is a term used frequently to refer to the way that applying pressure to one area of the illicit drug trade simply causes it to appear somewhere else. The ‘worm effect’ might be a better term for it when it comes to attempts to destroy the Mexican drug trade by cutting it to pieces.

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