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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 27th August 2011

A brief news item in a local paper about money donated at the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden brings an angry response from a particular corner of society and opens up the discussion of what is meant by ‘poison’.

Last year, the Alnwick Garden decided to start asking visitors to the Poison Garden to make donations after a guided tour and a local funeral director donated a coffin, which was modified to become a large money box with a slot for people to put in their money.

Cannabis sativa

As part of the deal, I suspect, the donor company wanted a photo op with the Duchess of Northumberland and she, of course, is happy for any chance to promote the garden and castle. So, the local paper recently showed a photograph of the duchess lying in the coffin with managers from the funeral director standing by accompanied by a brief item saying that £10,500 had been raised since April.

Nothing there of any real interest to anybody except for what you might call ‘the Poison Garden reporting convention’. This is the ‘rule’ that no newspaper can ever mention the Poison Garden without reference to the licence it has enabling it to grow Cannabis sativa.

And every reference to cannabis being in a Poison Garden produces a reaction from at least one of the many Internet forums dedicated to growing and using cannabis for medicinal and/or pleasure purposes. These reactions are correct; Cannabis sativa is not a poisonous plant. It is scientifically proven that there is no such thing as a toxic dose of cannabis only that the chemicals it contains produce psychoactive effects.

Of course, plants like Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, or Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane, also produce psychoactive effects but they also are toxic in the scientific sense and overdose does cause deaths. There is no prohibition on growing either of those plants but cannabis, where it has been shown to be impossible to overdose, cannot even be grown without special permission.

Hyoscyamus niger, henbane, seeds

Hyoscyamus niger, henbane, seeds

Looked at from a purely PR point of view, the presence of cannabis is still useful for promoting the garden but that has to be balanced against the fact that having it in the garden amounts to lying about it and, given that the claim is that the Poison Garden’s prime purpose is to promote drug awareness, you have to ask whether lying is the best way to teach children and young people about the dangers they face in the real world.

When I first began researching the plants for the Poison Garden, I was in that, probably, silent majority of people who accept the official line that drugs are harmful and need to be illegal to save everyone, but especially children, from harm. The more research I did, however, the more I came to see that most of what is said about drugs in general and cannabis in particular is wrong.

One of the reasons I left what I believed to be the best job in the world was that the Duchess and her acolytes were firmly stuck in the stereotyping camp when it came to drug information. I was appalled when, at the suggestion of the garden’s PR company, the Alnwick Garden staged a stunt where schoolchildren were brought to the garden and encountered actors pretending to be drug users on their tours around. The actors’ performances were straight out of the big book of drug stereotypes.

Thus the heroin user was dirty, scruffy and incoherent. And the cannabis user was idle and argumentative. The reality, of course, is that some heroin users are dirty and scruffy and incoherent but the majority are just like you and me. Drug education that pretends drug users are different is quite likely to encourage drug use.

Claiming that cannabis is universally harmful is simply wrong and as long as that position is maintained by officialdom there is no real chance of determining what it is that means that cannabis is completely harmless for the overwhelming majority of users but devastating for a small minority.

That I left the Alnwick Garden because I was no longer prepared to follow the party line on substance misuse doesn’t mean I agree with the forumites who say cannabis shouldn’t be growing in a poison garden. My key belief is that, with all plants, it is harm rather than poisoning that needs to be discussed and understood and that the human race is responsible for making substances harmful, not the substances themselves. Current policy on drugs, all of them, increases the harm they cause.

According to the newspaper report the £10,500 raised ‘will be used for drug awareness training and workshops’. It’s interesting to note that the official annual report of the charity that runs the Alnwick Garden says ‘A particularly important aspect of the Poison Garden is the promotion of Drug[sic] awareness’. I am not, of course, suggesting that the donations made by visitors will help to pay the wages of the guides whose every tour is considered to be ‘drug awareness training’. But I can’t help thinking that this would be preferable to using the money to fund additional programmes that present false information about the real harm that psychoactive substances cause.