Jeremy Sare on Khat

Jeremy SareThere is no more baffled and frustrated group of law enforcers than the customs officers who oversee the massive and legal importation of khat into Britain.
Although the plant’s value is measured purely in terms of its quality as a stimulant, the HMRC must, for the purpose of tax, deem khat as merely “salad.”

Last week, the Home Office announced an inquiry into khat and whether it should become a controlled drug. To date, the coalition government’s prevailing view on drug control has been restricted the more recent phenomenon of “legal highs.” Their decision to explore imposing stricter controls on an established drug like khat is their first proper test in showing they can be more progressive and imaginative on drug law than the often primitive approach from New Labour. 

Khat use is not like other drugs. It will never spread beyond the Somali and Yemeni communities – it would have happened by now. It is an esoteric cultural practice. In any case, chewing leaves is not remotely attractive to young drug users who prefer “clean” highs from pills and powders. But demand for khat in those communities is fairly inelastic so controlling the plant under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 would instantly transform the “entrepreneur suppliers” into gangsters. The current price of £15 per kg would rise inexorably towards the US price of $400 per kg

The Government response should be to regulate, not to control. They should begin by licensing the “mafreshi” the little dens where khat is chewed, restricting these places to adults, to require the rooms to be clean, well ventilated, and alcohol free where advice is available to help cut down and stop.

There is some optimism the Government intend to take a more regulatory level of intervention – there is an absence of the usual bluff ministerial determination to be seen to be doing something. The inquiry was announced to coincide with the publication of Home Office research which is not supportive of imposing criminal sanctions. Instead, it suggests the Government should realise the “opportunities …to reduce the risk of harm through a combination of measures, for example, health education and promotion, health and safety regulations, licensing and sales tax and import quality controls.”

The Government has acted on precious few of the recommendations of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drug’s 2005 report through a fear of condoning a more regulated drug market. Consequently the supply of khat, like any drug, has evolved into a sophisticated underground network, where, once imported, is checked by no authority at all.

Khat’s efficacy disappears after about three days so it takes some slick organisation to get it from the foothills of the Ethiopian Highlands to kebab shops in Wembley in 24 hours. Flights from Mombassa to Heathrow are unloaded in the early hours and a network of suppliers rush the precious cargo from west London to Cardiff, Liverpool, and Sheffield.

Dr Axel Klein, co-author of The Khat Controversy: Stimulating the Debate on Drugs, suggests the issue is one of social isolation which will not be resolved by making it an illegal drug, “Experience from countries that have banned khat – Sweden, Canada, the US – do not show Somalis as either becoming integrated or economically successful. They remain one of the most deprived BME communities because of the conditions of their migration, as refugees displaced, victimised, and traumatised by a war that continues….khat, it is suggested, hinders integration, by locking Somali men into Somali only enclaves where they chew khat, speak Somali, listen to Somali music and watch Al Jazeera TV.”

There are certainly harms from khat but they are more secondary than derived from the immediate health risks. It is a fairly weak stimulant giving a lift in mood and is associated with insomnia, aggression, and paranoia if taken over a sustained period. Heavy smoking is also common. But its impact in the communities is felt mostly by loss of motivation to work, poverty, and domestic violence.

The Home Office research agrees that, “excessive use although not very common” can be attributed at least in part to post traumatic stress. There are thousands of Somalis here who have witnessed violence and atrocities in the bitterest of civil wars which has raged their home country for twenty years. Taking large quantities of a weak drug in response to mental trauma is no place for the criminal law if we are to respond to the problem in a humane way.

Mubarik Abdi, Public Relations Officer of the Somaliland Mission UK, said, “It is now considered a part of everyday life, not a social barrier rather a social anchor. Educational material on the health impacts of consuming khat should be made to promote to the younger generation its dangers. While drug action teams and rehabilitation centres should be available to all those looking to stop khat.”

Two years ago, Baroness Warsi struck a much less tolerant tone and promised a Conservative Government would control khat regardless of the disproportionate impact on one or two ethnic communities. The Baroness’s charge that not controlling the drug would amount to “inverse racism” would only stand if every community should have the right to be equally persecuted for simple drug possession.

Jeremy Sare is a freelance journalist and government consultant. He is a former secretary to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and head of drug legislation at the Home Office.