It’s a week now since the classification of Catha edulis, khat, as a class ‘C’ substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) but I make no apology for returning to the subject. Partly, I want to contribute to those who are trying to keep this topic in the news. But I’m also struck by how the story of khat mirrors many other stories.
My objection to the khat classification (I know it would be easier to call it a khat ban but that, to me, is to give it credit for achieving that which it cannot; the elimination of khat chewing in the UK.) is based on two sets of arguments – the general and the specific.
The general is that I do not believe prohibition of any substance is an acceptable way of approaching the potential harms from that substance. At its most simplistic, my view is that if a substance is not harmful there is no reason for it to be controlled and if a substance is harmful then leaving its manufacture and supply in the hands of criminals is an abdication of responsibility by governments. Accept that principle and it becomes a matter of determining what is the appropriate level of regulation for individual substances.
The specifics, as far as khat is concerned, are about the divisive effect of the classification, the waste of police time in enforcing the MDA for this substance and the exploitation of a minority community for political purposes.
Since the announcement, a year ago, of the intention to classify khat and more especially in the past week since the classification took effect, there have been reports and anecdotes about the effect of criminalising large numbers of the Somali and Yemeni communities.
I’m not going to offer sources for what
follows. I recognise that they are mostly individual anecdotes
rather than an accumulation of evidence. I won’t even try and
claim validity for them on the basis that Theresa May was happy
to accept anecdote over evidence to try and justify her actions
rather than admit that she was using minorities to boost her
right-wing credentials and support her plans to stand in the
election to find David Cameron’s successor when the time comes.
But anecdotes there have been and they suggest that the fears expressed before the classification are proving to be justified.
There are signs that inter-community relations have suffered. I’ve seen the suggestion that it is all the fault of the lazy Somalis and the Yemenis who have chewed khat in the UK for many decades without causing problems say the Somalis have brought the ban about.
I’ve read journalists who have tried to buy khat in the past week only to find that people who were, last week, selling khat are, today, claiming they have never heard of it. Such journalists are adding to the problem many expected to see. Problem khat users are less likely to seek help if they fear it will bring them into the criminal justice system and all users and sellers are likely to view any official from any agency as an undercover representative of the police. May’s claim that she had the interests of the Somali and Yemeni communities at heart always looked bogus.
There has been the story of a former khat
chewer switching to alcohol. If the violence associated with
excess alcohol consumption replaces the quiet reflection
experienced by khat chewers the communities will suffer from
There has been one example of a mafresh owner closing up with the intention of claiming benefits so that legal khat contributing to the exchequer via the VAT on import and the taxes of those involved in its sale and distribution is replaced by a drain on the benefits system.
And the political exploitation isn’t limited to Theresa May and her band of right-wing, ill-informed Tories. One Labour MP has told a constituent that a Labour government, after 2015, would repeal the law. No mention was made of the fact that Labour supported the classification and that, had it opposed it and sided with the Lib-Dems, it would never have passed through parliament.
But, the most worrying stories, and here I can justify the use of the plural, have been of the continued availability of khat but at greatly inflated prices. With the need for airfreight and speedy distribution of a bulky product, there has never been a huge profit to be made from the legal trade in khat. With prices reported to have already increased four-fold, the opportunity for criminals to make money is clear.
As so, the specific joins with the general and we’re back to asking why governments think creating and maintaining profitable markets for criminals is good policy?
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