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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 11th July 2013
Bread and Butter Drug Testing

There are some people who think that the more extensive drug-testing is the fewer people will use drugs. But, as other people point out, the trouble with drug testing is that Cannabis sativa, marijuana, is detectable in the system for a very long time, possibly weeks, whereas substances such as heroin are completely metabolised within about a day. That has been shown to lead people who are at risk of being tested choosing to avoid cannabis and use a much more harmful substance instead.

It is an aspect of drug-testing that comes up whenever some official body proposes extending testing in some way. It has come up in the last few days because the UK government has published draft regulations to implement the provisions of The Crime and Courts Act 2013 in relation to the new offence of ‘driving with a specified controlled drug in the body above the specified limit for that drug’.

The regulations are ‘draft’ because the Department of Transport is running a consultation about them and inviting comments. The Secretary of State for Transport is Patrick McLoughlin MP. He has been an MP since 1986 and has held a variety of minor government and opposition roles before finding more favour from David Cameron. His current role is, probably, about as high as he will rise and his background, as an ex-miner, may disqualify him from greater things in the eyes of traditional Conservatives.

I’ve said all that to show that he is not as ambitious and self-concerned as Theresa May, the Home Secretary, meaning, perhaps, that the consultation may just have some point. Clearly, after her decision to schedule Catha edulis, khat, against the clear advice of experts, there would be little reason to contribute to any consultation being carried out by the Home Office.

It has to be hoped that Mr. McLoughlin is willing to listen because the current proposals are likely to worsen road safety. The ministerial statement says the regulations would take ‘a zero tolerance approach to deal with those who drive under the influence of illegal drugs’. To be fair, the statement goes on to claim that limits will be set so that ‘zero’ doesn’t mean ‘absolutely zero’ but the tone suggests that the idea is to have limits that prevent the sort of incident discussed later in this piece rather than to base limits on any sort of correlation between level of intoxication and degree of impairment.

That’s clearly a nonsense because the existing limit for alcohol is based on impairment and suggestions that it should be set at zero are always resisted on the grounds that some level of alcohol in blood exists that doesn’t damage driving ability. If the government were truly serious about reducing traffic deaths and injuries it would look at all substances, including alcohol, rather than picking on the major recreational psychoactives.

Relating driving impairment to levels of chemicals is not going to catch all those whose driving is impaired to the point where they are at increased risk of being involved in a collision. You can spend all night playing an online game, and sipping only water, and then go out onto the roads without committing an offence – unless your driving is demonstrably careless or dangerous.

There is a great deal wrong with the consultation document not least that it claims to be seeking to do things that the law doesn’t do when it comes to alcohol but, given that I don’t expect the Department of Transport to take much notice of any of the consultation’s responses, I won’t discuss the document in detail.

Except that, I couldn’t help noticing that the Executive Summary says that the new law is required because ‘34% of people [agree] that drug driving is in the top three road safety issues most important to address’. And that made me think of the story in ‘The Independent’ on Tuesday ‘British public wrong about nearly everything, survey shows’ To give one example, the ‘public’ thinks £24 in every £100 of benefits is paid to fraudsters whereas the true figure is 70 pence. Basing policy on what the public thinks is a very poor idea.

What we have then are proposals that will, as mentioned at the top of this piece, encourage people to use substances that become undetectable faster regardless of whether those substances are more harmful. They will, also, encourage people to drink rather than use drugs because the law says there is an acceptable level of alcohol that does not impair driving.

It is hard not to conclude that this process has more to do with finding a new way to demonise drugs and justify prohibition as the scientific evidence builds the case for regulation as the least harmful approach.

As mentioned above, there is the problem of the accuracy of drug tests. The story of a Pennsylvania woman would be laughable if so much harm hadn’t been done to her and her family. She was tested for drugs when she went into a maternity unit for the birth of her daughter and the test came back positive for opiates. Elizabeth Mort had not used drugs but she had eaten a bagel covered in poppy seeds shortly before going to hospital. As a result of the test, her new-born was taken away from her for five days while her lifestyle was investigated. The local social services department and the hospital have now made an out of court settlement.

There are people who claim that poppy seeds don’t contain any opium but, though the amount is very small, it is present. In my files, though I must state I can’t recall the original source, is the story of a baker, working the night shift, who took to making himself poppy seed tea.  After some time he presented at hospital with signs of opium intoxication.  Investigation showed that the bakery’s normal order of 3Kg a week of poppy seeds to go on rolls had gradually increased to 25Kg.

I looked online to see if I could find the source of this story and though I did not find anything I remembered seeing I did find this from Kent State University in the USA.


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