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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 28th January 2014

A 2013 paper from Sweden about attitudes to Catha edulis, khat, seemed to me to have implications outside that country and not all to do just with that one mildly psychoactive plant.

The article is not based on new research but is a review of attitudes to khat in the Swedish media and how anti-khat groups work to create those attitudes. The period covered, from 1986 to 2012, seems rather a long one for drawing any conclusions given that attitudes to psychoactive substances change reasonably quickly but, it appears, khat is not a common subject for the Swedish press. The author found 33 articles in the main news database plus ‘a few’ on newspaper websites that were not in the database.

I can’t help thinking that the period chosen adds a further complication. Khat was made illegal in Sweden in 1989 so a 1986 start date includes the period when a ban was under debate. That’s fine for the author’s purposes of seeing how anti-khat campaigners made their case but it makes it unlikely that what has been reported is entirely factual.

Catha edulis, khat

I mustn’t let myself get sucked into looking at the Swedish situation because my interest is in the wider world. Sweden is unusual in still clinging to a policy that believes a completely drug-free world is achievable and, immigrants anxious to assimilate, are, it seems to me, quite likely to want to show they buy into that flawed position.

The first very important lesson for the UK is that the author quotes a 2006 story noting that people think between 30% and 50% of ethnic Somali men in Sweden chew khat. One of my concerns about the UK’s intended classification of khat is that, I thought, the plant is difficult to smuggle because of its bulk. My fear is that current users would move to more concentrated substances that are easier to conceal or increase consumption of alcohol and tobacco where khat chewing was just part of their social intercourse. If chewing levels in Sweden, 17 years after the introduction of the ban, are as high as claimed than it is very clear that classification in the UK will not produce a substantial reduction in use.

In the reporting of the views of anti-khat campaigners, there are all the exaggerations that we see from the likes of Abukar Awale though even he would, I’m sure, stop short of saying that khat use is as much of a problem as HIV according to one anti-khat campaigner reported in Sydsvenska Dagbladet in 2003.

Catha edulis, khat

What is notable, however, is that there is no mention of any link between the khat smugglers and Al-Shabab. The ridiculous attempt to tie khat trading to terrorism seems, therefore, to be a uniquely UK phenomenon and demonstrates just how conditioned the British public is to allow politicians to act as they wish as long as those actions have the tag ‘anti-terrorism’ attached.

But the most striking point from this article is one that has resonance right across the whole spectrum of psychoactive substance use. In describing his method of selection the author says;

‘The criterion used for including an article was that the central theme was khat use, while articles on Somali immigrants living in Sweden with only cursory mentions of khat were excluded.’
So, articles about the Somali diaspora that didn’t make a big thing about the use of khat were excluded. I have to ask, if khat is such a serious problem for the Somali community, how is it possible to write about the life of that community without discussing khat?

I find that a great deal of what I learn about poisonous plants and psychoactive substances results from what is not written. Campaigners against khat in the UK manage to gather a dozen or so people to dance about with placards but the many thousands of Somalis and Yemenis living in the UK are silent. With Cannabis sativa, marijuana, people like Kevin Sabet will leap onto any study suggesting that a small number of people suffer harm from their use but ignore the many millions who have used pot without suffering any long-term effects.

Outside the field of psychoactive substances, we know that there is a vociferous lobby against Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort, but actual case reports demonstrating harm as a result of ingestion by horses or cattle are extremely few in number compared to the number of animals who might be exposed to the plant.

I realise that ‘Nothing Dramatic Happened Today’ is not a headline you’ll ever see but it is essential to remember that the relevant question resulting from any story about the claimed harms of a poisonous plant or psychoactive substance is what is the absolute level of risk?

Or, as I tend to say ‘Show me the bodies!’.  


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