Jeremy Sare: Khat’s out the bag

jeremy_sare2To be a home secretary is to become the embodiment of political contradiction.

Last Tuesday, Theresa May announced to parliament a scaling back of “stop and search powers” given their highly disproportionate deployment against black and minority ethnic (BME) communities. “The official statistics show that if you’re from a black or minority ethnic background, you’re up to seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than if you’re white,” she said.

Then the following day she announced a ban on the possession and sale of the herbal stimulant khat, which is certain to severely sour police relations with all British Somalis.  One day, a unifying liberal Conservative; the next, a socially divisive and confrontational Tory.

The prevalence of khat is so high in the Somali community, once it becomes a controlled drug, then it will be perfectly reasonable and “proportionate” to arrest any Somali male in Liverpool, Cardiff, Sheffield, Bristol, Birmingham, or London. The Somalis are already the most disconnected and socially invisible community in Britain. This “robust” approach will harm relations with the police irrevocably and risks radicalising young people who used the Mafreshi or “khat houses” as a refuge of social normality from the more extreme teachings in the local mosques.

Dr Axel Klein, University of Kent, said in an article in, “As serious is how it [the ban] unwittingly plays into the hands of Islamic extremism and leaves moderate Muslims high and dry. The radicalisation of the young will now be reinforced by two predictable trends: Muslim men stopped, searched, and arrested for khat offences by zealous police officers; and the outraged siblings of those, who with no legitimate alternative, will embrace the most indulgent aspects of Western culture.”

The Home Office will, in due course, publish its race equality impact assessment on the policy. It will no doubt be an exemplary piece of civil service circumlocution, trying not to admit that the obvious outcome will be a policy leading to the incrimination of a whole ethnic community. The only hint of compromise by Ms May was introducing street warnings and fixed penalties as well as prosecutions, namely, “an escalation framework for the possession of khat for personal use, similar to that in place for cannabis.”

But the home secretary has not just gone against her own enlightened review of “stop and search,” but also against the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs’s (ACMD) scientific advice. In her statement, she said she could take into account the advice as well as, “wider concerns,” which implied the ACMD were made up of unworldly boffins and crusty academics whereas only Ms May lived in the real world.

The comprehensive ACMD report was published in January, and usually the government’s response to these reports is instant. The ACMD very often concludes on a ban for a new substance, and any home secretary agrees with embarrassing enthusiasm before the signatures are dry. The six month delay was a sure sign of wrangling and discord between ministers, officials, and scientific advisers.

To impose a ban, contrary to the carefully gathered evidence, risks further ACMD resignations. When the council’s advice over the classification of cannabis was overruled in 2009 by the then Labour home secretary, Jacqui Smith, then seven members left, so threatening the council’s future existence. The council has since come back from the brink, produced some high quality reports, but council chair Sir Les Iversen’s pointed remarks about inactivity by departments over legal highs implied growing tensions. “Sooner or later we will get an unexpected serious harm emerging with one or other of these compounds and then we will blame ourselves for allowing them to be sold,” said Professor Iversen in May.

The ACMD has considered the harms of khat twice in the past eight years and concluded they are a long way short of justifying its control under the act. Its status as a class C drug will place it as a drug of equivalent harm as a powerful anesthetic, ketamine, which has been linked to overdose, severe dependence, and permanent bladder damage.

Theresa May’s written statement argued limply, “Failure to take decisive action and change the UK’s legislative position on khat would place the UK at a serious risk of becoming a single, regional hub for the illegal onward trafficking of khat to these countries. “ This does not appear a valid reason for controlling a drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act which is for, “drugs which are being or appear to them likely to be misused and of which the misuse is having or appears to them capable of having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem.” It does not include banning a drug because another country has banned it. The “problem” posed by khat appears merely to be its illegality elsewhere. It is an entirely circular argument. If Theresa May’s greatest fear is being an export hub for other countries then she could ban its export and police it.

Drugscope CEO, Martin Barnes, said he was, “concerned and disappointed… the decision will raise again legitimate concerns about the credence given to the ACMD’s recommendations and how drugs policy is informed and decisions are made.” Bristol Liberal Democrat MP, Stephen Williams, was more succinct when he simply called the decision, “stupid” as the policy amounted to, “a waste of time and money for the government and our police.”

There is rarely any significant political opposition to the prohibition juggernaut, but there may be a bit of politics yet to be played out here. Danny Kushlick of Transform Drug Policy Foundation said, “The Conservatives have called for the prohibition in order to align the UK with other states that have already banned khat. The Liberal Democrats, to their great credit, will oppose the ban because of a principled opposition to the war on drugs.  However, most startling is the deafening silence from the Labour party, which appears to have effectively abandoned a very specific ethnic minority.”

In a previous BMJ article I argued regulation was the only realistic solution to controlling the harms of khat. On either side of regulation stands anarchy and organised crime. Current government policy is to allow legal high sales to thrive in an anarchic situation that ministers cannot get a grip on. Khat has now been gifted to the criminal gangs at the cost to the British Somali communities.

Jeremy Sare is parliamentary adviser to the Angelus Foundation set up to educate parents and children about the dangers of “legal highs.”