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Big Debate: Was it right for the government to ban Khat?

Khat was re-classified as a class C drug Khat was re-classified as a class C drug

Friday, July 18, 2014
10:07 AM

The decision by the government to reclassify khat, a flowering African and Arabian plant chewed or drunk as a stimulant, as a class C drug has been welcomed by health workers.

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But some argue that the ban, announced last month, is a mistake and a sop to religious conservatives that will ruin businesses and culture for Somali refugees in London.

This week, a Canning Town businessman and anti-khat campaigner, and an academic and expert on the substance, discuss whether the ban should be hailed or lamented.

Festus Akinbusoye, anti-khat campaigner

Festus AkinbusoyeFestus Akinbusoye

It’s cheap and cheerful – but comes at a price to your family and health. I speak of Khat – not the feline favourite we’ve come to love in Britain, but the rather insidious plant mostly chewed by the Somali and Yemeni community.

When chewed, Khat releases cathine and cathinone, both of which, in their pure forms, illegal. It bears similarities to amphetamine and causes hyperactivity, chattiness and in rare cases - organ damage or schizophrenia. Users, overwhelmingly men, generally chew for long periods of time in a social setting. Some have argued that it is a ‘cultural thing’ from ‘back home’ just like pubs are to British culture.

The plant is illegal in France, Germany, and even the rather liberal Netherlands. Further afield, Khat is illegal in America, Canada and Saudi Arabia to mention but a few. So what do these countries know about the danger posed by this plant that we do not know? Thankfully, the Home Secretary has finally brought us in line with the rest of the developed world by making Khat a controlled substance in the UK.

Dr Axel KleinDr Axel Klein

Until recently, an estimated 10,000 tons of Khat landed at Heathrow annually. Imagine the world’s largest cargo plane filled with Khat landing in London – every month! Since it is illegal almost everywhere else, the UK became a hub for smuggling Khat to much of the western world.

I know of a courier driver imprisoned in France for inadvertently picking a load from Heathrow which contained Khat. I know of former users who lost their jobs because they couldn’t stay awake at work. The government has made the right decision by banning Khat. The challenge now is to work on helping former users to more fully integrate into society while taking their rightful place as citizens in our communities.

Canning Town businessman Festus Akinbusoye, who campaigned for almost six years to ban Khat

Dr Axel Klein, Lecturer at University of Kent, khat expert

At last a well orchestrated campaign by a small group of Islamic zealots has succeeded in closing the licit importation of khat, the mild naturally occurring stimulant that has been used in Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen for millennia.

Since large numbers of Somali refugees arrived in the UK in the 1990s, the trade in khat picked up significantly.

Several times a week planes fly in from Nairobi and Addis Ababa to supply hundreds of mafrishes – khat cafes – and green grocers all over the country.

The trade has provided hundreds of UK Somalis with a livelihood, and their countrymen with a peaceful and agreeable past time.

For Islamic campaigners this has long been a thorn in the flesh of the community. Mafrishes are public spaces, where discussion ranges widely and freely, as friends gather to relax and enjoy. At a time of rising hostility and nationalism making the assimilation for even second or third Generation British Somalis more difficult, such spaces come at a premium.

In Somali neighbourhoods like Tower Hamlets or Lambeth these mafrishes were the strongest organised opposition to the grip held by Islamic organisations over the community.

Different attacks on the health hazards or the social harm all failed to yield a result. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of drugs reviewed the evidence on three different occasions and recommended that it did not merit the status of a controlled substance. What finally convinced the home secretary was the alleged link between khat use and terrorism.

Precedence over the determination of the ACMD makes a mockery of evidence-based policy making.

As serious is how it 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.

Sadly, the slow, painful path towards criminalisation was inevitable once khat had been framed as a ‘drug’.

It demonstrates that many policy makers are undeterred by evidence or consequence as long as they fall into line with standard practice.

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