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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 14th May 2014

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
The Hollow Men T S Eliot

That’s two things I haven’t done for a while. First, it’s been over a month since I wrote a piece for this blog and, second, it’s been a long time since I’ve used a quotation as a starting point.

What’s brought about these two is that I thought I should write about the end of the long story of the classification of Catha edulis, khat, under the Misuse of Drugs Act especially since the last two scenes of the drama have gone largely unnoticed.

A Google News search shows that the failure of the attempt to obtain a judicial review of the Home Secretary’s decision was reported only in Kenya  , where growers will be badly affected by the ban. And, though the BBC included reference to it in its preview of the week in parliament, there has been no media coverage of the ‘regret motion’ in the House of Lords debated on Monday.

Catha edulis, khat

For once this means having no choice than to go to the primary source for any information. The verbatim record is available from Hansard though you have to scroll halfway down to 6.16 pm or from They Work for You where the debate has been reproduced in full on its own page.

I’ve said many times that the classification of khat is about Theresa May’s political ambitions rather than the well-being of anybody and the ‘regret motion’ (actually a proposed amendment to the government’s motion to approve the classification) is also about politics. The amendment was moved by a Labour peer. Labour supports the classification but, for political purposes, it has to show that it would have done it better and that was the intention of the amendment.

The debate did, however, give the opportunity for peers completely opposed to the ban to have their say and the contributions for Baroness Hamwee, Baroness Meacher and Lord Rea are worth reading. The last two, in particular, point out the general failure of prohibition. Lord Rea says ‘Banning substances that are widely used has little effect on the level of use’.

That general point, however, was ignored by the government minister in his response to the amendment in favour of focusing on the issue of re-export. He presented recent figures for khat seized in France after being shipped from the UK but, as was pointed out in the debate, he gave no comparative figures to show if this was, truly, an increasing 'problem'.

Catha edulis, khat

Unfortunately, no-one really questioned the two key flaws in the government’s argument. The first is to ask why it takes a different approach to khat than it does to alcohol or pornography. If the UK government is truly concerned about items that are legal here being shipped to countries where they are illegal then it has to act against both those items for the sake of countries like Saudi Arabia or Malaysia.

In any case, the idea that stopping someone from buying a copy of ‘Razzle’ from a corner shop in Rotherham would impact on the smuggling of that same magazine into Riyadh is clearly absurd so why does the government think that banning khat from a grocer’s in south London will affect the trade (if there is any) with the Netherlands?

The government has previously rejected the HASC’s call for the khat trade to be regulated and the government minister was similarly dismissive of proposals to concentrate on controlling supply rather than criminalizing possession when responding to the debate.

And so, as everyone knew beforehand, the amendment failed and the order allowing the classification received its final approval. Implementation will follow, shortly.

The outcome is exactly as was predicted as soon as the incoming government, in 2010, asked the ACMD to look again at khat. There was a lot of concern about the ACMD after Professor David Knut was sacked and several other members resigned. The fear was that the only people willing to serve would be those who knew that they had to find the answers the government wanted. The crumb of good news from this affair is, therefore, that the ACMD ignored the clear signal that the government had an answer in mind when it asked the question and stuck with the evidence leaving the government having to pretend that it knew better.

So, khat will become an illegal substance with all the harm that will cause and I see no chance of its classification being dropped from the Misuse of Drugs Act. That means the focus has to be on bringing about the repeal of the MDA itself because, although this new ban on khat will harm both users and non-users, in numerical terms they are a minority of those harmed by drug policy based on moral prejudice and political posturing.  

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