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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 1st May 2012

This should be a very short entry today.

One of my pet hates is the way the mainstream media speculate based on zero information and create completely the wrong impression about a story. If I’m going to avoid doing that myself I’ll need to keep this quite short.

It was widely reported1, today, that seven people have been arrested in the UK on suspicion of funding overseas terrorism from the profits of smuggling Catha edulis, khat, from the UK, where it is legal to the USA where it, sort of, isn’t. I’ll return to that ‘sort of’, shortly.

Catha edulis, khat

Catha edulis, khat

Obviously, you can’t arrest someone in this country for sending khat to the USA because there is no offence, here, is doing so. Presumably, if the USA discovers the identity of people involved in sending khat from the UK to the USA it can ask the UK to extradite them because they have committed an offence under US law. But, as we’ve seen with a number of recent cases, extradition remains a time-consuming and difficult process even with the recent changes that mean no UK court can assess a case before deciding whether to grant extradition.

It becomes much simpler to take action against suspected shippers if you can find a UK offence to arrest them for. And here’s where I have to stop myself from speculating. To date, there is no proven link between terrorists and the khat trade although it has been suggested.

I wrote about the BBC Radio4 programme on khat and noted that the interviewer had been ‘told by a very senior policeman that there was no evidence for the involvement of terrorists in the marketing of khat’.

When CNN asked the question – ‘Is narcotic khat funding terrorism?’2 it concluded, after a lengthy article, ‘We don’t know’. It quoted Somali analysts as saying ‘the use of international khat trade to fund militant activities has long been suspected by intelligence agencies but evidence is difficult to prove and remains circumstantial.’

Catha edulis, khat

It has also been suggested that making khat a controlled substance in the UK would foster ‘potential links with terrorists’3 suggesting that such links do not, at present, exist.

Unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail gives a particularly good example of the sort of nonsense that can result from turning one's back on facts and relying wholly on speculation. It quoted the self-proclaimed leader of a Somali group as saying that young men are being deliberately hooked on khat by terrorists so that they can be radicalised. The evidence, however, is that young members of the Somali diaspora are not large users of khat viewing it as old-fashioned.

But to avoid the danger of speculating about whether these arrests will for the first time prove a link between the khat trade and terrorists or whether using terrorism legislation is a convenient way of doing the US a favour, I’ll go back to that ‘sort of’ above.

It is usually said that Catha edulis is illegal in the USA. That is not the case. Cathine and cathinone are scheduled substances and, unlike the UK, anything containing them is also scheduled. This means the US authorities have to prove the presence of one or both of these alkaloids in seized khat for a successful prosecution. Since these alkaloids degrade quite quickly, it can be a problem proving, to the satisfaction of a court, that khat contains or contained the alkaloids.

That seems to be the basis of the defence being mounted by thirteen people in Virginia who have elected to go to trial on charges of smuggling khat into the USA.4 They are said to be part of a group that has been involved in the trade for six years. The two alleged ring-leaders have entered guilty pleas, presumably, as part of a deal with prosecutors.

I’m tempted to wonder if part of that deal involved naming their UK suppliers leading, directly, to today’s arrests in another example of the UK authorities dancing to the tune of the USA’s drug warriors.

But that, of course, would be speculation.


1.Seven arrested over terror funding BBC News 1st My 2012
2.Is narcotic khat funding terrorism? CNN 8th March 2012
3.The Khat Controversy. Anderson, Beckerleg, Hailu & Klein. Berg 2007
4.13 defendants in khat smuggling case go to trial Bloomberg Businessweek 18th April 2012


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