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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 12th January 2012

On 25th December, I wrote about the scheduling of a House of Commons Adjournment Debate for 11th January at which Milton Keynes MP, Mark Lancaster, would speak about Catha edulis, khat. I didn’t at that time know what Mr Lancaster’s position on khat was or how extensive his knowledge about it.

Catha edulis, khat

Catha edulis, khat

Now that the debate has happened and been fully reported in Hansard, the official record of parliamentary proceedings, (the debate starts about halfway down the page) it is clear that Mr Lancaster believes khat should be banned and that his knowledge about it is not very extensive.

Anyone can make a mistake but you would expect an MP, enjoying his moment in the spotlight that an adjournment debate provides, to have done his research carefully and to avoid making ridiculous errors. In his speech to the House of Commons, Mr Lancaster spoke about ‘the 10 million tonnes [of khat] arriving each week’ at Heathrow. That is patently a ridiculous number. 10 million tonnes a week would provide every citizen in the UK with about 150kg. Heathrow Airport handles around 1.5 million tonnes of air freight per year. A 250gm bundle of khat sells for about £3-5 so 10 million tonnes a week would give a total annual market of somewhere between £6-10 billion. There are very many ways to demonstrate how ridiculous that number is but it is more productive to ask three questions;

What did Mr Lancaster mean to say?
Why did the figure not get challenged by any of the MPs in the chamber or by the minister who responded to the debate?
And why did the figure appear in the official record?

Take the last question first. I understand that MPs can ask the Hansard clerks to make a correction for an obvious and silly error to prevent it being perpetuated by inclusion in the published account. Why does it appear that Mr Lancaster did not request such a correction? Does he really believe the number he gave?*

*Immediately before placing this blog online, I've done a news search and a Twitter search to see if any correction has been made and re-read the Hansard report to see if it has been corrected. I, also, checked the MP's own website only to find that the '10 million tonnes per week' appears there suggesting it wasn't just a slip of the tongue. I've taken a pdf of the page, in case there is any attempt at re-writing history when, finally, Lancaster realises his stupidity.

The second question is interesting. Two other MPs contributed to the debate, anxious to show their interest in this matter but neither they nor James Brokenshire, the Home Office minister with responsibility for drug policy, nor anyone else present in the chamber seems to have spotted the figure and intervened to get it corrected. Were they paying so little attention?

But the first question is most interesting of all. If Mr Lancaster didn’t mean 10 million tonnes a week what did he mean? It couldn’t have been 10 million kilogrammes because that is still 10,000 tonnes a week. Did he mean 10 million bundles? A bundle is approximately 250gm net so 10 million bundles weighs a net 2,500 tonnes, still a very silly number. 10,000 bundles would be a net 2.5 tonnes.

It is impossible to determine what Mr Lancaster meant to say. The actual figures are somewhat confusing. Several references are made online to Heathrow handling about 7 tonnes per week but others say that it is more like 7 tonnes per day from Kenya and another 675kg from Ethiopia and Yemen. The government’s literature review, which I wrote about when it was published last July 15th, says that a total of 57.7 tonnes per week arrives in the UK and that seems more in line with the 7 tonnes per day.

It is possible that the confusion between daily and weekly amounts began with the 2007 book ‘The Khat Controversy – Stimulating the Debate on Drugs’. In Chapter 9, Table 9.1 shows estimated daily imports for 2004 totalling 5,000kg from Kenya and 675kg from elsewhere. But the text refers to ‘5,000kg per week’. The growth in khat since 2004 seems to have increased the 5,000kg to 7,000kg but left the 675kg unchanged.

The British Crime Survey found the annual prevalence of khat for 16 to 59 year olds to be 0.2%. That suggests around 60-70,000 adults used khat at least once in the previous twelve months. It doesn’t give last month prevalence for khat use but for any drug last month prevalence is about half the annual rate. If that applies for khat then there could be 30-35,000 regular khat users. The literature review mentioned above suggested that around a third of Somalis are frequent khat uses and, given that the Somali population is estimated to be around 100,000, that makes the 30-35,000 number seem reasonable.

If 35,000 people chewed one 250gm bundle of khat a day* they would require 61 tonnes a week so the 57.7 tonnes estimated seems to support the approximation to the number of users.

*It is believed that not every khat chewer chews every day and some users consume more than one bundle at a session. One bundle per user per day is, therefore, wrong but the unders and overs should partially cancel out.

Apart from talking total rubbish about the amount of khat imported to the UK did anything else Mr Lancaster say make sense? When I wrote about this debate on 25th December I said that there were an estimated 10,000 people of Somali descent in Milton Keynes. In the debate, Mr Lancaster said the Somali population was 6,000 and, as I haven’t been able to find the 10,000 number, again, I’m happy to say my figure was wrong. Mind you, whilst searching again for my source I did find one reference to the Somali population being 616 so, it seems, how you define ‘Somali’ may be important.

There was a Jerry Maguire moment when Mr Lancaster noted that there is a ‘lack of information held on hospital admissions’ meaning that ‘we are still uncertain about the overall long-term health effects’. There have been Somalis and other khat chewers in the UK for long enough to mean that if there were widespread health problems resulting from normal levels of khatting there would be enough hospital admissions to create the information Mr Lancaster says does not exist.

Mr Lancaster pointed out that ‘the first mention of khat in Parliament 16 years ago to this very day’ but didn’t consider that, in that time, any serious adverse effects would have come to the fore.

He also cited an occasion when inspectors at Heathrow found one box of khat that contained ‘such high levels of pesticides that it was unfit for human use’. It may be that he got that information from a report published last year by Hillingdon Council, the local authority area that includes Heathrow. That report just says that, in 2010, a check on a shipment found ‘dangerously high levels of pesticides’ but it hasn’t been possible to find any more detailed information. I did find a 2004 paper about adverse health effects resulting from the use of pesticides on Catha edulis plants in Yemen so it must happen but most of the people who write about khat after spending time in Africa with growers and users say that pesticides are very rarely used because they can mar the taste of the product and taste is crucial in determining price.

Catha edulis, khat

Catha edulis, khat

But, regardless of the extent of pesticide use, Lancaster referred to it in order to make one of those arguments that only drug warriors think have any sense. He said that ‘Our hands-off policy means that there is absolutely zero quality control’. So, what he wants to do is to take a situation where khat is openly imported and sold so that the authorities can, easily, obtain samples to check for pesticides and take action if necessary and replace it with one where, because khat is illegal, its import and sale becomes covert and the job of assessing quality becomes almost impossible.

I haven’t been able to find a figure for the alkaloid content of Catha edulis and it will vary depending on where, when and how the plant is grown but, if it is similar to other alkaloid bearing plants you would say that the active ingredients of the 57.7 tonnes a week currently imported would be less than 1 tonne of pure extract. It would be next to impossible to smuggle and distribute over 50 tonnes of khat each week but 1 tonne is a very different proposition.

The key point, that didn’t seem to have occurred to him is that cathine and cathinone, the active ingredients of khat that are already Class B substances would replace the plant itself as the substances being imported and that a situation akin to the difference between chewing Erythroxylum coca leaves and snorting cocaine powder would be created.

And, whereas khat chewing is limited to a very small, very specific section of society making targeted education and support programmes easy to provide, establishing cathine and cathinone in the market would open them to many other consumers. The 0.2% adult annual prevalence of khat chewing could start to emulate the 2.2% annual prevalence for cocaine.

In his response, the minister pointed out that the government can ignore the advice of the ACMD but it cannot take action before it receives that advice. And he also pointed out that classification of Catha edulis, although promised when in opposition, was neither in the Conservative manifesto nor in the coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats.

Given that the Liberal Democrats agreed, at their 2011 annual conference, to work for the overhaul of the Misuse of Drugs Act, it must be hoped that they will be resolute against any attempt to classify Catha edulis rather than work openly with the user communities to reduce its perceived, but largely unproven, harms.