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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 12th April 2012

About thirty years ago, there was a saying about the three biggest lies in the world. That sort of thing gets permanently circulated by email these days but, back then, it was just word of mouth. The three lies were; ‘The cheque is in the post’, ‘Of course, I’ll respect you in the morning’ and ‘I’m from head office and I’m here to help’.

The passing of time means that cheques have all but disappeared from the business world and attitudes to casual sex are very different. But, it seems, the last, or anyway the final part of it, still applies. Someone saying they want to be helpful may be anything but.

Catha edulis, khat

This struck me after reading a piece by Michelle Brooks, Lecturer, PhD Researcher in Human Geography, Head of Research at Inspire, in ‘The Huffington Post’. It is entitled ‘Khat Addiction and the Social Side Effects for Women’ Ms Brooks’ work is about preventing the exploitation of Muslim women in the UK so, I think it’s fair to say, she is ‘here to help’.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure how much help she can be when she misdirects her attention on to Catha edulis, khat, and seems to be suggesting that making it illegal will do wonders for the Somali and Yemeni communities in the UK. Her article is full of assertion with little or no evidence.

Start with the headline; ‘Khat Addiction…’ Defining addiction in a meaningful way is difficult and, all too often, it is just used in a pejorative sense. There is no clear evidence that khat is addictive. There are anecdotal reports of heavy khat users becoming psychologically dependent on it but there are also plenty of anecdotal reports of users having no problems with abstinence if prices go too high or if circumstances mean that khat chewing is not possible.

Catha edulis, khat

The opening paragraph tells of ‘severe long term effects in concentration’ without giving an idea of what ‘concentration’ means in this context and goes on ‘It can cause hypertension, paranoid psychosis, depression, anorexia, heart attacks, dysfunction of the working memory in the brain , mouth cancer and tooth-loss’.

As I blogged after reading an Australian report;

‘…a minimum of 7 million Yemenis chew khat. But, in 2 years, only 125 khat chewers were admitted to hospital in Sana’a for acute myocardial infarction.’

The evidence for health problems arising from khat use is very limited and seems to relate only to users who consume very large amounts on a near daily basis.

This assertion about the health effects of khat is closely followed by a call for it to be banned but Ms Brooks gives no consideration to what the effects of a ban would be. Surely, there is no-one who still believes that banning a substance is a way to end its use.

Then out comes the ‘think of the children’ argument with the statement that;

‘Some teenage men and boys can spend the entire day intoxicated in the Mafrishi with obvious impacts on employment, education and health.’

The idea that khat chewing is a pastime of the young is entirely bogus. Ms Brooks cites the Home Office literature review when talking about the amount of tax raised from khat imports so I’ll limit my comments of khat and the young to what that document says.

Catha edulis, khat

On page 16, there is a paragraph about the ‘Perception of increasing consumption among youth’ that looks at published evidence and finds that though a small sample of Somali youth suggested khat chewing could be used to distinguish their cultural identity ‘Most Somalis born in the UK…had never used khat’. It goes on to say that this is consistent with findings in other countries with immigrant populations from khat chewing countries.

Calling for a ban based on the young is, therefore, an error and, worse, would almost certainly make khat more interesting to the young as a symbol of youthful rebellion.

Ms Brooks is concerned about the lot of Muslim women and her concern is laudable but by suggesting that khat ‘addiction’ is a key factor in the lives of these women is tilting at windmills. In a Diaspora community, there is always a tendency for community members to cleave together to retain their identity. Given that Somali culture is male-dominated, it is only to be expected male domination will become stronger as the external pressures of the host society appear to threaten ‘traditional’ ways. Khat chewing has nothing, whatever, to do with that.

The Home Office literature review says on this topic;

‘In conclusion, despite social harms often being highlighted in relation to khat, there is a general lack of research in this area and no clear evidence that khat is a crucial factor in determining the social harms indicated.’

The review acknowledges that there are those who believe khat chewing is harmful and can offer anecdotes in support of that position but, in its conclusions, it also says;

‘To better understand the impact of khat consumption in the UK more research is needed across all the immigrant communities involved.’

It also points out that;

‘Legislating against khat in Europe and North America has had little success in curbing demand’

So, banning khat would simply drive it underground making it more attractive to young people, increase the closed nature of khat chewers to the detriment of the women in the Diaspora communities and make proper research impossible to carry out.

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