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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 25th December 2011 

If I’m honest, I must admit that I have been hoping to find a subject for today’s blog that has no relevance to the date and, by chance, it dropped into my lap courtesy of Twitter.

The schedule of parliamentary business for 11th January 2012 shows an adjournment debate on government policy on the drug khat with the name of Mark Lancaster MP against it. I’ve been trying to second guess what that is going to be about.

Catha edulis, khat

Catha edulis, khat

I started by confirming what I thought I knew about parliamentary business. The adjournment debate is a device for matters to be brought before the House of Commons (or the House of Lords) without the need for a motion to be voted on. It’s a procedural device whereby, at the end of the day’s business, a government whip proposes ‘That this house do now adjourn’. At this point, the MP who has been selected by ballot, will rise to say that the house shouldn’t adjourn because such and such a matter should be considered. After putting forward his position, the relevant minister replies to the MP and, after no more than 30 minutes, the house formally passes the motion to adjourn.

This means adjournment debates are an opportunity for an MP, if he is lucky in the ballot, to bring a pet subject to the attention of the house.

Having sorted that out, I went to see if I could find out more about Mark Lancaster and why he is interested in the subject of khat, the name given to the leaves of Catha edulis which are chewed for their stimulant effect.

Mark Lancaster is MP for Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire. Milton Keynes was established as a ‘new town’ in 1967 and has a population of around 240,000 of which about 10,000 are of Somali descent. As far as can be estimated, there are thought to be around 100,000 Somali born immigrants in the UK so Milton Keynes having around 10% of the total may explain Lancaster’s interest in khat.

Catha edulis, khat

Catha edulis, khat

Though khat is chewed in many countries in the north-east of Africa and parts of the Arabian peninsula, it is most often associated with Somalis in the UK. The active ingredients in Catha edulis are cathinones and, as pure substances, they are classified as Class C substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Though not derived from the plant, mephedrone, 4-Methylmethcathinone, is structurally similar to the cathinones.

The debate about the status of khat has gone on for some time. In plant form it is generally agreed that it is only a mild stimulant and there is no settled opinion as to whether it is addictive or not. Certainly, in Africa, it seems that people are happy to go without at times when the price rises beyond their means, which is not something you could do with an addictive substance but it is a central part of the culture for many people and missing the afternoon khatting session is unthinkable.

In Africa, those afternoon khatting sessions are a way of binding the community. Often a person of importance will make a room in his home available and there will be a hierarchical structure to the way his guests distribute themselves around the room. Some sessions will involve readings from the Qur'an or other moral instruction.

For some people, therefore, khat use by the Somali community in the UK provides a useful peer network helping new immigrants to settle and even, some people believe, helping to keep younger Somalis out of trouble.

Catha edulis, khat

Catha edulis, khat

On the other hand, however, khat chewing, in public, is very much a male activity and as Somali women become westernised there are more assertions that khat chewing makes their men lazy and it should, therefore, be prevented. Since khat has to be fresh it is flown to the UK each day and, therefore, the cost and its effect on family spending is another issue.

In 2005, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) completed a review of the status of khat in the UK and recommended to the government that there was no need to add it to the substances proscribed by the Misuse of Drugs Act. Early in 2006, the government announced that it would follow the ACMD's advice. However, after taking over the chair of the ACMD from Prof David Nutt, Prof Les Iversen announced that the ACMD would look again at the situation.

In 2010, the hysteria about ‘legal highs’ diverted the ACMD’s attention but in February 2011, the Home Secretary asked the ACMD to make completing its work on khat its second priority after its work on cocaine. The latest minutes on the ACMD website are from April 2011 and state that a working group to examine khat had been established with Annette Dale-Perera and Hew Mathewson as joint chairs.

Understandably, the minute says that the 2005 report deals adequately with the pharmacology of khat but, worryingly, the minute goes on that this means the ‘current work would focus on societal harms’. It is rather disturbing to find that a committee that is supposed to examine scientific evidence is starting from the assumption that there are societal harms rather than saying it will examine societal issues to see if there are harms.

From reading his biography, it appears that Mr Lancaster is not your normal mass-produced Conservative MP. On some issues, he has shown himself to be capable of following his own principles even if that clashes with the party line. For that reason, it is impossible to guess what his line will be on 11th January.