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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 27th October 2013

I don’t know where the summer went. As the south of the UK prepares for what is forecast to be a very severe storm, I realised that it is five months since I had a root around in the archives of Popular Science magazine.

Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade

Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade

I decided to search for ‘nightshade’ because I’m still hoping to discover why so many people claim that Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade, is actually deadly nightshade when that common name should be applied to Atropa belladonna.

Popular Science returned 28 mentions of ‘nightshade’ from September 1875 to January 1983 so I thought I’d start with the earliest. The mention comes in an article entitled ‘The Use of Narcotics’  and, as I began reading it I was struck by how modern many of the remarks are. The article is credited to Chamber’s Journal but no specific author is named nor could I find one by wider searching.

At the very start, it talks about the initial hostile reaction to tobacco and says that the efforts to suppress its use were ‘nothing less than persecution’ and calls it an illustration of the uselessness of trying to interfere with individual freedom. That point remains at the heart of drug policy debate with prohibitionists still refusing to acknowledge that people want to use psychoactive substances so attempts to make any society ‘drug-free’ are bound to fail.

Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade

Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade

The author notes that, in spite of all the rhetoric and penalties, the use of tobacco has steadily grown.

He (I think the assumption that the author is male is reasonable) then notes that even more severe measures against opium in China have failed to prevent its use. This is regarded as a greater problem because of the more serious consequences of opium use including that habitual users will steal to finance their purchases and that the effects of heavy use are ‘not less deplorable’ than regularly being drunk. The equivalence or otherwise of excess alcohol use versus use of other substances is still a key topic today. I’ve been reading the Tweets coming from The International Drug Policy Reform Conference and these have included comments from a former police officer that he always found it easier to deal with people who had used cannabis rather than alcohol.

The implications of excessive use of opium are illustrated by reference to Coleridge and De Quincey but the opinion of Dr Christison that the effects on most people are mild is mentioned. Dr. Christison, it seems, was trying to discourage use by suggesting that the mild effects were not worth the ‘subsequent pain and depression’ when use was discontinued.

Differing opinions on the effects of opium on foreign races are given with the conclusion that there is insufficient data on prevalence for any certain conclusions to be reached. This same lack of data applies when trying to assess usage in the UK because, although there are import figures for what was a legal substance, there is no data for the amount used for truly medicinal purposes nor for the export of morphine by British firms. In the absence of data, the author draws on an anecdote about the experience of a workhouse medical attendant seeing an increase in the number of opium eaters and others from parochial officials and clergymen to justify the assumption that recreational use has increased.

This article predates, by 23 years, the isolation of cocaine from Erythroxylum coca so the author only has its use in leaf form in Peru and Bolivia to consider. He notes that the Spanish invaders initially tried to supress the chewing of the leaves because it featured strongly in the native religious festivals and was, therefore, thought to be a barrier to the spread of Christianity. When, however, they realised that more work could be obtained by allowing chewing several times a day the financial needs of the colonialists were placed above the spiritual needs of the native people.

The mention of nightshade that led me to the article comes when saying that the wild laughter it produces is indistinguishable from that of a maniac and that leads to a discussion of what might be learnt about the workings of the mind and body from learning about the mechanisms of action of intoxicating substances.

Some years ago, I was in a friend’s car when he had to pop into work to pick up a flask containing a newly discovered ‘designer drug’ (as New Psychoactive Substances were called in those days) that had been found to produce Parkinson’s like symptoms in users. He was taking it to another laboratory so that his work to determine the action and, hopefully, understand the basis of Parkinson’s better could be supported by others.

The conclusion of the Popular Science piece is that there is only one certainty - that the use of tobacco is a ‘positive vice’ producing a deplorable waste of money. Though not made explicit, one assumes from his earlier criticism of sanctions to suppress use that the author feels that regulation and education are the ways to restrict the harmfulness of this vice.

I’m not sure whether I feel pessimistic to find that so many of the concerns about and questions relating to the use of psychoactive substances remain unresolved 138 years later. Or whether to be optimistic that the piece shows that the idea that prohibition is a successful way to manage the use of such substances will, in time, be seen as a short-term aberration.

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