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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 14th February 2012

Last Saturday, when writing about Oklahoma’s moves to outlaw the commercial cultivation of Ricinus communis, castor oil plant, I said ‘I’m loathe to label politicians as stupid even if all the published evidence points in that direction’. After my Google alert for ‘ricin’ directed me to this report I find I’m able to conquer my loathing.

In fact, I think it is essential so to do and say that some of Oklahoma’s politicians are so stupid that they make me think that word needs to be redefined because most people’s understanding of what is meant by stupid goes only part of the way to describe what went on in the Oklahoma House of Representatives on 13th February.

The story I linked to gives a summary of the session (and contains one error that I’ll refer to later on) but it is possible to view the video of the whole session. Click on the list under the video screen to jump straight to the item.

The moves against the castor oil plant are the subject of two separate bills. HB2188 is concerned with outlawing the transportation of castor beans in Oklahoma while HB2189 is to ban commercial cultivation.

Procedurally, these are not debates about the bills. They are the chance for members of the House to ask Representative DeWitt questions on aspects of the bills.

In the rest of this piece I’m going to make it clear that I think little of a number of Oklahoma’s representatives but I’ll start by acknowledging the sense of one of them. Representative Terrill makes it quite clear, by the questions he asks, that he thinks these are bad bills. He begins by pointing out that the measure on transport is likely to get knocked down by the constitution. If someone in Kansas wanted to buy castor beans from Texas the way to take delivery would be for the beans to be driven through Oklahoma. The constitution prevents Oklahoma from passing laws that make that journey illegal.

Rep. DeWitt either doesn’t get, or doesn’t want to get, that point and just says there is no commercial production in Texas so such a transaction wouldn’t occur. He says any castor beans used in the US are produced overseas and, though he acknowledges its potential as a biofuel because of the high oil content, he says it is too toxic to be grown in the USA.

This is the first of several times that he says one castor bean in a load of wheat would result in the whole load being condemned as unfit for human consumption. Rep. McCullough asks if there have been cases where this has happened and DeWitt just repeats that Ricinus communis is not grown commercially in the USA so this hasn’t happened but he insists it would.

Then Rep. Reynolds says the bill says no ricin can be transported but DeWitt keeps referring to research to produce a variety of castor oil plant that would have very little or no ricin. He suggests that the bill would be better if it set a maximum level for ricin so that, when the research produces this new variety, it can be transported. DeWitt doesn’t accept that idea and just says the law can be revisited if necessary.

I’m pretty sure Rep. Johnson was joking with his question but he asked it in a completely serious way. He wanted the assurance that mothers would be able to continue to use castor oil as a way of determining how sick a child was who said they weren’t well enough to go to school. He was worried, he said, about an increase in truancy if the castor oil test wasn’t available. As I say, I really hope he was joking because, if he wasn’t that would make Rep. Morgan’s question only the second daftest of the session.

Morgan wanted it confirmed that, if castor beans were being transported on Oklahoma’s roads and there was a serious crash, that would lead to the surrounding farms being contaminated resulting in the spread of ‘this disease’. He really did say ‘this disease’.

Rep. Terrill returned to his attempt to inject some sanity and asked how many beans you would have to masticate to get sick. To this DeWitt said that three to eight beans were enough to kill. I was disappointed when Terrill did not follow up by asking, if it took, at least, three beans to kill why should a load of wheat with one bean be rejected. It certainly would have been nice is someone had challenged the whole assertion by pointing out that many people have survived ingestion of higher amounts.

Rep. Armes asked if DeWitt would compare what could happen to Oklahoma’s wheat industry if contamination occurred with what BSE did to Britain’s beef industry. DeWitt agreed that he would.

But, there was no chance of sanity imposing itself. Before he asked his first question, Rep. Terrill said he knew the bill was going to pass and it did by 71 votes to 21.

The session moved on to HB2189, the bill seeking to outlaw commercial cultivation.

Rep. Terrill began by asking for confirmation that the only way to get castor beans will be to buy them from overseas and, having had it followed up by asking how mankind has survived all these centuries with this horrific threat to its food supply. DeWitt, (I’ve got all this way avoiding the obvious but with this one I can’t stop myself) or should that be DeWitless, answers that the plant isn’t grown in Oklahoma so the food supply hasn’t been contaminated.

Rep. Reynolds seems to pick up Terrill’s point and asks if anyone anywhere in the US has died as a result of contamination or even if any loads of wheat have been rejected because of it. DeWitt says no but insists there is no commercial production and then repeats the one bean would contaminate a whole load nonsense.

When asked how the countries that do grow castor oil plants cope with the contamination problem DeWitt’s response is to say that Egypt, where most of the castor beans are produced, doesn’t grow any other crops so they don’t have a problem.

Then Rep. Vaughan asks one of those ‘Are you aware…?’ questions that politicians use to give information. In this case, Vaughan wants the House to know that he has seen videos showing land that has been made unusable as a result of growing Ricinus communis.

I mentioned that the transcript contains an error. In answer to Rep. Terrill’s question about whether anyone, US or state Departments of Agriculture, has looked at using a closed system for producing castor beans so that equipment is dedicated to just that crop DeWitt says they haven’t not, as in the transcript, they have. DeWitt’s problem with using a closed system is that wildlife would, apparently be dragging castor oil plants out of the ground and moving them to fields of wheat. That dumb comment comes after an earlier confirmation that it will still be legal for individuals to grow the plants in their gardens where many people value them as deterrents to wildlife.

Then there is another non-question question from Rep. Cox who says he views both bills as anti-terror measures because he knows aerosolized ricin was used in the terror attacks on the London subway that killed so many people. I’m writing this after watching the video and I know what I heard but I just went back to watch the video again because that is such a remarkable thing to say. If you don’t have the time to enjoy the whole session I urge you to go to 1hr:14min:50secs into the video. Here’s the link again.

What disappointed me and made me feel that the stupidity in the Oklahoma House of Representatives extends beyond those individuals I’ve named above was that no-one challenged this outright lie. But it also made me wonder whether DeWitt's assertion that the bill was an agricultural issue is true. He did infer that the alleged anti-terrorism aspect was just a useful by-product but I'm inclined to think it is central to what DeWitt wants to achieve but, for reasons I don't understand, he can't openly propose an anti-terror measure.

When I wrote about the ‘Georgia 4’, I said I was very glad not to be a US taxpayer. I’m doubly glad not to be living in Oklahoma if these are the sort of people running the state.