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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 16th October 2012

The usefulness of Google Alerts is, of course, related to the search term used. I have a friend who is involved in the supply of frames combined with glazing for insertion in the external walls of buildings. I wrote it that way to show that whilst ‘windows’ is, plainly, not a useful term for a Google Alert finding an alternative that will produce helpful results is not that easy.



In my sphere of interest, the alert that produces the least relevant results is for ‘laburnum’. Almost every result, and there are several each day, is about a property for sale on Laburnum something. I find it curious that a plant causing a hysterical reaction from many people who misunderstand the difference between poisonous and harmful should be seen by so many as the ideal name for a residential area.

With the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) about to present its latest report on Catha edulis, khat,, to the home secretary, I thought I should set up an alert for ‘khat’ to see if anything interesting came up.

For the most part, the results are in languages other than English or refer to a person whose name includes ‘Khat’. To date, I’ve really only had two interesting results. The first, a few days ago, was to a new website offering information about khat and the opportunity to buy bundles produced in Ethiopia. It seems to me to be a strange time to be setting up such a site given that it is widely expected that the UK government will ignore whatever recommendation the ACMD puts forward and proceed to schedule the plant itself under the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) (the active ingredients are already scheduled). On the other hand, I suppose, it could be a shrewd move if publicity about the ACMD report draws more attention to khat.

Catha edulis, khat

Catha edulis, khat

One thing I found very interesting about the site is that it gives a lot of information about the possible harms of using khat excessively and doesn’t simply dismiss these concerns but tries to put them into context. There is a full page about ‘misuse’ pointing out that users can cause themselves and their families harm if khat chewing becomes the dominant thing in their lives but saying, quite rightly, that this is similar to the minority of alcohol uses who let the substance take over their lives. There is also a full page about the health effects.

The other result that interested me just shows how useful alerts can be in bringing you information that you would never go looking for. My email, today, directed me to an English language news website based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which carried a report on the revenue of the Dire Dawa Zone post office for 2011/12 noting that total revenue decreased by nearly 50% due, mainly, to a reduction in the number of khat parcels being shipped out of the country. The report suggests this is a result of the central bank insisting that foreign currency to pay for the product is received in Ethiopia before goods are released.

The total number of exporters is said to have fallen from 800 to around 100 and, the paper notes, some shipments to the UK and China were returned because the addressee was not available to take delivery.

Now, of course, this is only one post office and, as AddisFortune notes, customs revenues in Ethopia, arising from both export and domestic khat sales, increased in the same period so it would be wrong to draw any conclusion. Maybe the market has turned away from Ethiopian khat for price or quality reasons. Maybe the rules on pre-payment have driven the trade underground and exporters have found different ways to get their products to the overseas consumer. Maybe there has been a genuine reduction in demand for khat partly as a result of enforcement action in countries where it is outlawed, partly as immigrant communities become more assimilated and move away from the traditions of ‘home’.

For the UK, you’d need to see the import VAT figures for the period, by country, to know if demand had fallen or supply simply moved to countries other than Ethiopia. So, my Google Alert raises more questions than it answers but, to me, it also has a broader relevance.

Yesterday, there was a lot of attention given to the final report of the UK Drug Policy Commission which has undertaken a six-year study into drug policy in the UK. I haven’t, yet, read the report so I may have more to say about it at a later doubt. For now, I mention it because the Home Office responded almost immediately to its conclusions that there is an urgent need for change. It took survey figures suggesting a decrease in prevalence of illegal substances, especially among young people, as the basis for saying the current policy is working and there is no need to do anything different.

As you should expect, the situation regarding prevalence is much more complex than the Home Office is making it out to be and it is taking a figure that suits its position and suggesting it is an undeniable truth.

If that is the way drug policy works then I claim the right to say that the fall in khat exports from the Dire Dawa post office is evidence that current policy on khat is working and there is no need for it to be scheduled under the MDA.

I can pick cherries with the best of them.

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