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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 5th July 2011

A story in the Washington Post on 30th June caught my eye and I’ve been waiting to see if it was picked up by the UK press. It hasn’t been, so far, and I can’t help wondering whether its subject matter is so far away from the agendas of most of the UK’s papers that they’ve decided not to touch it.

It concerns the follow on effects of The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA) a law that re-evaluated the ways in which drugs users and those in the drug trade should be punished. This act recognises that, intentionally or otherwise, the law related to cocaine, the extract of Erythroxylum coca, was racist.

Erythroxylum coca, cocaine

The previous law, passed in 1986, removed the discretion of judges in dealing with individuals by imposing mandatory minimum sentences for those found in the possession of more than a stated amount of cocaine. What made the law racist was that the trigger amount of powder cocaine was set at one hundred times the amount for crack cocaine. It may be that legislators, at the time, were simply driven by belief in the rhetoric that said crack was a hundred times more addictive that powder cocaine but, since crack is more likely to be the type of cocaine chosen by black Americans, the law resulted in many more black men being locked up for cocaine offences.

The FSA goes some way to correcting this situation by reducing the relative amounts to 18 to 1. So, in fact, the FSA will continue to be racist but just to a lesser extent. It’s hard to know whether there is any claimed scientific basis for the 18 to 1 ratio or whether that was what required in order to get sufficient bi-partisan support for the law to be passed.

One reason it is hard to know is that the USA suppressed the largest ever study of the effects of cocaine use in its various forms conducted by the World Health Organisation in the early 1990s. When the WHO issued an ‘information package’ in 1995, which is usually the pre-cursor to a formal report based on the information in the ‘package’ the USA threatened to withdraw financial support from the organisation because the evidence, collected from nineteen countries, indicated that cocaine was not the monster that US law said it was.

The latest news on this subject is that the U.S. Sentencing Commission, after looking into the matter, has said that those who received higher sentences than the FSA now provides should have that sentence cut to reflect the injustice that was done to them. It is estimated that up to 12,000 current inmates are affected by this decision. The Sentencing Commission, however, stopped short of saying the reduction should be applied automatically and said each case should be considered on its merits. It did, at least, ignore calls for anyone convicted of violence or possession of a firearm as well as possession of cocaine to be excluded. Any reduction in sentence will only apply to the cocaine conviction and not to any related convictions.

That being so, you would think that an automatic reduction in the part of the sentence related to crack could have been given but instead each individual will have to demonstrate good behaviour in prison and show that they are not a threat to society upon release.

Though admitting the law was wrong, in the past, the judges seem anxious to avoid any suggestion that they are just opening the prison gates. Perhaps that is why the UK press hasn’t been interested in the story. There’s nothing to rant about and that only leaves an admission that drug policy has been badly flawed for many years.

The need for each prisoner to make an application for a reduction reminds me of the situation in France following the ergot poisoning in Pont-Saint-Esprit in August 1951. Though the early suggestion that the poisoning resulted from Claviceps purpurea, the ergot fungus, was replaced by the likelihood that the culprit was in fact Aspergillus fumigatus, a fungus that contains a number of ergot alkaloids, it was obvious quite early on that the problem arose from contaminated wheat. The officially preferred explanation, that the poisoning was the result of mercury contamination, had the merit of being due to either human error in allowing wheat seed intended for planting to enter the food chain or due to criminal activity in routing surplus, and therefore worthless, seed into the flower mill.

Accepting that the poisoning was the result of poor practice throughout the milling industry that meant that silos were not being properly cleaned out leaving old wheat to develop fungal infections would have meant accepting that costly changes were required to French agricultural practice. It would also have meant paying costly compensation to the several hundred people affected.

In the end, after many years, a single individual was awarded compensation from the government for the harm he had suffered but, although his case had been spoken of as being a ‘test case’, French judges ruled that other individuals could only obtain compensation by bringing their own case to court where detailed medical evidence would be required and that claimants would have to pay for their own medical examinations.

No other victims brought their cases to trial so the French government was spared an expensive and humiliating admission that it had failed its citizens. I wonder if there are those who hope that many of the 12,000 people wrongly sentenced in the USA will decide not to fight their case so that the government does not have to shine too big a light on the result of drug policy based on ignorance. The scandal of mandatory minimums may be coming to an end but the issue of drug policy being based on prejudice and ignorance remains for all other areas of that policy.