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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 12th November 2012

My Google Alert for Catha edulis, khat, directed me to a profile of Baroness Warsi on the Mail Online website1. Baroness Warsi was the first female Muslim to serve in the Cabinet, though her current position, as Senior Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Minister for Faith and Communities, is outside the cabinet. She is, however, one of a number of ministers who attends cabinet meetings.

Because this is a Mail profile, most of the text is concerned with probing any problems she has had with being both Muslim and female and trying to get her to say something controversial about multiculturalism. Those are not topics within my area of interest so I will focus on the three short paragraphs on the subject of drugs.

The profile is intent on portraying her as a focussed individual who knows what she thinks and isn’t afraid to say it. Thus it says;

 ‘She takes the same no-nonsense approach to other issues, such as drugs. Wary of treading on ethnic toes, Home Secretary Theresa May has not responded to calls to ban the legal plant-based drug khat, which is used mainly by minorities. But not blunt Warsi.

‘‘I have been pushing the Home Secretary to get on with it. We cannot say, “Because it’s Somalian and Ethiopian boys who take this, it’s part of their recreational activity, hey-ho, we will just let them take it.” We would not legitimise marijuana to please the Rasta community, so why do that with khat?’’

Catha edulis, khat

Before looking at those two it is worth quoting the third, very short, paragraph in case there is any doubt about the Mail’s view. It simply says;

‘Are you listening, Theresa?’

The key word in the quotes above is ‘boys’. Baroness Warsi wants people to believe khat use is a problem affecting the young. I wondered if she had any detailed knowledge of the subject or was just spouting something told to her by someone else and thought a look at her own website might be helpful.

A search for the word ‘khat’ finds only one result2 and it is worth reproducing that in full;

Sayeeda Reiterates Her Call for Khat to be banned

‘In a House of Lords debate today, Baroness Warsi called on the government to ban the drug Khat. Khat is having a profound effect on certain communities in the UK. The drug can be bought in Britain with no restrictions at all and recent surveys have shown that up to 59% of young people in Sheffield chew Khat. Sayeeda has been campaigning to outlaw this drug and is adamant that this can be achieved. (June 24th 2008)’

What is wrong with our politicians? In January, I wrote about MP Mark Lancaster’s ridiculous claims about the amount of khat imported into the UK and here we have Baroness Warsi saying ‘up to 59% of young people in Sheffield chew Khat’.

Catha edulis, khat

There’s no modifier there. It is not 59% of Muslim young people or 59% of Somali young people. I decided to have a look at Hansard to see if anyone had challenged that figure only to find that, contrary to the impression gained from her website, Warsi didn’t say anything about 59% in the House of Lords.

Here’s what she did say3;

‘Baroness Warsi: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response, but I am somewhat surprised that this matter is still being consulted on in 2008. I am sure that he is aware that his Government consulted on the matter in 2005. Indeed, they received a report from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and set up a khat working group. My noble friend Lady Anelay asked this Question in Parliament in 1998. This drug is destroying the Somali, the Yemeni and the Ethiopian communities. Families and young children’s education are being destroyed. If the achievements and aspirations of communities are being denied by not being protected from this drug, the equality of opportunity agenda in this country is not being met for certain communities. This is essential for community cohesion. Will the Minister deal with the matter by classifying this drug?’

Re-reading her website you can see that it doesn’t specify that the item is quoting directly from Hansard so could it be that it is the member of staff responsible for the website who has created this ridiculous assertion that 59% of all young people in Sheffield chew khat? Not that Baroness Warsi would be excused if that were the case. Politicians must be accountable for what appears in their name.

Another search produced a piece on the Guardian website written by Sayeeda Warsi herself.4 Under the headline ‘Conservatives will ban khat’ she writes;

‘A recent survey found that 76% of respondents use more khat in the UK than in Somalia; in Sheffield, 59% of young Somalis chew khat.’

I don’t know what counts as ‘recent’ but the only survey on khat use in Sheffield that I have found was done in 2000 and involved only 94 respondents. The abstract5 doesn’t say how many of those were users but, in any event, the authors conclude ‘The findings are preliminary’.

Catha edulis, khat

I’ve discussed the literature review published by the Home Office6 before. This, whilst concluding that;

‘More rigorous monitoring of consumption patterns in the UK would certainly help in generating a solid evidence base and improve upon the currently meagre quantitative data on the trends and patterns of khat chewing.’

finds that what work is available points to khat being unpopular with young people.

By claiming that khat is a problem for ‘boys’, Baroness Warsi is applying the ‘think of the children’ argument to convince those who are not familiar with the subject.

There are very few whose attitude towards psychoactive substances is so liberal that they think young people should be freely using them so creating a threat to the young is a way to make the prohibitionist argument undeniable.

Within the next few weeks the ACMD will be issuing its latest report into khat. There is no reason to believe that anything has changed since its last report (though I sense, with no hard facts to support that sense, khat use may have declined since 2005) so I would be very disappointed if the ACMD bowed to the will of the Home Secretary and concluded that a ban was necessary.

I don’t believe, however, that such a conclusion will be acceptable to Ms May. If the ACMD says there is no need for a ban, I fear that she will argue that the ACMD isn’t at the front line where people are hearing about khat use amongst the young. I fear we’ll see the ACMD portrayed as a bunch of academics in an ivory tower who don’t understand what is happening in the real world.


1. Baroness Warsi: Maypoles, harvest festivals, Christmas carols... it's time for the minorities to join in Mail Online 10th November 2012
2. Sayeeda Reiterates Her Call for Khat to be banned Baroness Warsi official website 24th June 2008 (wrongly dated 24th May 2008)
3. Drugs: Khat Hansard 24th June 2008 Column 1334 2.52pm
4. Conservatives will ban khat The Guardian 15th June 2008
5. ‘Use and perceptions of Khat among young Somalis in a UK city’ Nabuzoka, D. and Badhadhe, F. A. (2000), Addiction Research, 8(1), pp 5–26.
6. Khat: Social harms and legislation. A literature review Home Office July 2011

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