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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 9th March 2012

Three things saw me praising the Internet, today, though the third also involved quite a bit of cursing. The first two provided demonstrations of the importance of not having to rely on the printed media for information because, sadly, press reporting is all too often lazy or prejudiced.

UK law prevents people being deported to countries where they are likely to face inhuman treatment, including detention without trial, torture or execution. The Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) hears appeals from those ordered to be deported who feel that would place them in danger.

For some time the UK government has been able to present ‘sensitive’ evidence about the deportees to SIAC in secret without having to share that information with the deportee’s lawyers. A few days ago the UK Supreme Court ruled that a similar opportunity should be given to the deportees so that, for example, evidence about practices in the country concerned that might place people living there in danger could be provided.

The Supreme Court noted that its ruling breached important principles of natural justice but was the lesser of two evils in order to reduce the chance of sending someone to torture and, possibly, death.

The Telegraph headline to its report ‘Terrorists to use secret courts to fight deportation’ sets the tone for its story. These people are not, necessarily, terrorists. Some will have served prison sentences for terrorist offences but others have simply been deemed to be undesirable in spite of having no conviction.

This is certainly the case with two men the Telegraph chooses to highlight describing ‘seven suspected Algerian terrorists, including two men linked to a ricin plot’. That description comes in the second paragraph but, lower down, it seems two has become one because we are told; ‘They include one man who was charged over a plot in 2003 to spread ricin and other poisons on the streets of Britain’.

To the right-wing press, the Venn diagram for Muslims and terrorists is almost a complete overlap and, because the principle of innocent unless proved guilty does not apply to such people, everyone charged with a terrorist offence is a terrorist. That is the only conclusion I can draw from the way the press continues to suggest that ricin was a factor in the 2003 charges brought against a group of Algerian immigrants. I’ve blogged a number of times about this (see the plant page for Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant, for details) but I intend to keep repeating – THERE WAS NO RICIN – every time a reporter through ignorance or hate based prejudice writes that there was.

There is a further lie in the report. Following the sentence I just quoted we read ‘He was acquitted at court but a co-defendant, Kamel Bourgass, was jailed for 17 years’. Bourgass was jailed as a result of a completely separate incident. It was nothing to do with any ricin plot because there was no ricin plot.

I keep saying that as, sadly, experience shows that one false statement can propagate and have a very long life. And that, I fear, is what may happen with the second story that makes me pleased that lies in the press no longer go unchallenged because of the Internet.

A fairly routine report in a local paper about a raid on a cannabis factory provoked a reaction because someone noticed that it said;

‘Police are warning that when cannabis plants reach the final stages of maturity the odour they release has carcinogenic properties.

‘Officers who deal with the plants use ventilation masks and protective suits and people who have plants in their home, especially anyone with young children, may be exposing their family to a health risk.’

One of those who noticed was Ben Goldacre and, as is his way, he didn’t immediately dismiss it as nonsense but asked if anyone else had heard such a claim before. I did a quick YouTube search and found plenty of videos of police clearing out Cannabis sativa, marijuana, plantations without wearing face masks. Goldacre, ‘because silly behaviour gets my attention’, followed up with the police and journalists concerned. The full account of his exchanges is in his posterous blog and it includes a two-word term that, I hope, will enter the language.

Starting with the police Goldacre was referred to the Harborough Mail who said they had taken the story from a sister paper, the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph, so he contacted that paper. (There’s no sign of the story on the Evening Telegraph’s website so I don’t know if it has been removed or if the paper didn’t run it.) The editor, claiming he could not provide the full email received from the police on confidentiality grounds offered an ‘unedited excerpt’ that was word for word as I quoted above.

Goldacre went back to the police to see if they would waive their confidentiality to provide the full email. His reply came from the Northamptonshire’s top PR man who sent the whole email. After the quote already given it goes on ‘(if you go with this line, an expert opinion from someone on the health side would be expedient)’.

Finally, he contacted the editor of the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph to question the description of what he had been sent as an ‘unedited excerpt’. And there the story ends, it seems, because Neil Pickford, the editor, has not replied. Perhaps he’s very busy or, perhaps, he thinks if he ducks out of sight the story will go away. Sorry, Neil, if I can do anything about it, the world will remember you for giving it the splendidly obfuscatory saying ‘unedited excerpt’.

Interestingly, my final story also revolves around someone using an ‘unedited excerpt’. Yesterday, the James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston Texas held a conference entitled ‘The War on Drugs Has Failed. Is Legalization the Answer?’

I’ll get the cursing out of the way first. The entire conference was streamed live. The conference agenda can still be seen but I don’t know if there is any plan to provide a recording of the live stream.

With the time difference I was watching late afternoon into the evening. One downside to the rural lifestyle I lead is that my broadband speed starts to diminish as soon as the schoolchildren come home and reduces to a crawl once the adults finish work and go online at home. I manage to watch some of the earlier sessions reasonably well but later on it became very difficult.

I knew from Twitter that Prof Alex Stevens was speaking on ‘Europe: Policy Alternatives in Portugal, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe’ but the stream was very broken and I had difficulty following everything he said.

I did however, pick up one point and it takes us back to one of the morning sessions when Kevin Sabet was debating marijuana legalisation with Russ Belville, Outreach Coordinator, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). I’ve written about Sabet before and noted his tendency to be selective about what he cites.

Yesterday, he pointed out that Prof Stevens had found the claims for the benefits of Portugal’s decriminalisation to be over-stated. Though I missed the earlier session I think John J. Coleman, Former Administrator, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration; President, Drug Watch International, may have said the same thing because Alex Stevens pointed out that ‘John’ had given a selective quote when referring to the paper by Caitlin Hughes & Alex Stevens that I blogged about in January.

Prof Stevens took ‘John’ to task for quoting from that paper;

‘Considered analysis of the two most divergent accounts reveals that the Portuguese reform warrants neither the praise nor the condemnation of being a ‘resounding success’ or a ‘disastrous failure’, and that these divergent policy conclusions were derived from selective use of the evidence base.’

That seems like a reasonable quote being offered by a prohibitionist because it doesn’t, as some have done, simply try and discredit the positive claims.

As Alex Stevens pointed out, however, (but without using the term) this was an ‘unedited excerpt’ because the paper goes on;

‘…that belie the nuanced, albeit largely positive (emphasis added), implications from this reform.’

The prohibitionist arguments I managed to catch from the conference all seemed, to some degree, to focus on saying that decriminalisation/legalisation would not produce a perfect world and, thus, should not happen. That line may be being taken because of the increasing evidence that policies other than prohibition make things better. And that ought to be enough.