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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 25th November 2012

My daily ritual includes having a look at the visitor statistics for this site. As well as seeing if anyone has linked to the site, often when posting on a discussion forum, I can see if someone has linked directly to one of my images. It can also provide an indication if some malign individual is trying to misuse the site for criminal purposes.

On occasion, it also reveals a sudden interest in a particular plant. As I have my Google Alerts to tell me of any online activity, a bump in searches for a particular plant usually means it has been mentioned on TV or the radio.

A week ago, there was a surge in the number of visitors arriving after putting the word ‘henbane’ into Google. It didn’t take too long to find that Hyoscyamus niger, henbane, had featured in an episode of the BBC drama series ‘Merlin’. I’ve said before that I don’t pay a lot of attention to fictional uses of poisonous plants because, quite rightly, most authors put the needs of the narrative ahead of the true nature of the poisons concerned.

Hyoscyamus niger, henbane

I have written about the belief that Egyptians would switch to smoking henbane if they could not obtain Cannabis sativa, marijuana. Recently, I’ve been reading about John Warnock who, it seems may be as important in the history of cannabis prohibition as Henry Anslinger. Warnock worked within the Egyptian mental health system for 28 years from 1895. It wasn’t, of course, called a ‘mental health system’ at the time. Warnock was appointed to head the Abbasiya Asylum but expanded his role and formed a ‘lunacy department’ within the Ministry of the Interior.

Hyoscyamus niger, henbane

Warnock never got to grips with Arabic, yet, within ten months of his appointment, he produced a ‘research’ paper claiming to have found a causal link between cannabis use and lunacy. Though he acknowledged that only a few users suffered severe symptoms, his work was relied on heavily at the 1924 Geneva conference that led to cannabis being added to the convention on opium.

Hyoscyamus niger, henbane

In 1903, Warnock wrote that the fact that more men than women were treated for insanity in Egypt whereas the reverse was true in England was a further proof that it was cannabis use that was causing the insanity.1 He also asserted that cannabis use produced a proneness to commit crimes that were often violent.

Hyoscyamus niger, henbane

In anyone needs help in calibrating the value of Warnock’s opinions it is worth noting that he regarded the desire for independence amongst Egyptians as ‘an infectious mental disorder’.

The reader will, I hope, understand why, when the ‘facts’ about poisonous and psychoactive plants are so frequently bizarre, I don’t trouble myself too much with how they are portrayed in fiction.


1. Insanity from hasheesh (extract) by John Warnock, MD, Medical Director, Egyptian Hospital for the Insane, Cairo  The British Journal of Psychiatry (2003) 183: 80 doi: 10.1192/bjp.183.1.80


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