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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 17th January 2013

Though I’m not aware of any official announcement, it seems to be generally accepted that the latest report on Catha edulis, khat, from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) will be published next week along with the government’s response to that report.

It seems to be a given that there has been no major change in the pattern of khat use or its effects since the last time the ACMD looked into it. It is possible, if anything, that there has been a decline in use in recent years seeming to imply that, if khat wasn’t worth scheduling in 2006, there is less reason now to include it in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Catha edulis, khat

But, the issue is twofold. The question of whether khat should be outlawed and what effect that would have cannot be completely separated from the wider debate about the status of psychoactive substances in the UK that, after simmering for a number of years, seems to be catching fire in recent months.

It is worth rehearsing the arguments about Catha edulis as distinct from general drugs policy. Khat chewing is a time consuming affair and the effects are not so great as to make the drug attractive outside of those populations for whom it is the traditional stimulant of choice. This restriction to particular original nationalities was a key factor in the 2006 decision not to schedule khat.

Amazingly, some of those arguing for khat to be scheduled say that not doing so is discriminatory. Arguing for a population group to be subject to the same harmful legislation as everybody else seems to be a little bizarre to say the least.

I’ve argued before that the most damaging effect of scheduling khat could be that a ban would work. Unlike the illegal substances, khat is imported in the ‘as grown’ state. This means that it is quite a bulky item. Heathrow Airport imports around 3,000 tonnes a year. With bundles weighing about 250gm and selling for about £3 each that makes those imports worth around £36 million. That is not a sum that anyone is going to take a lot of risk to earn.

Catha edulis, khat

It is expected that khat prices in an illegal market would increase substantially, another reason why a ban would be harmful. Many khat chewers already struggle economically so forcing them to spend more of their income on khat would only lead to greater family problems; one of the things campaigners claim they are concerned about. But it is hard to see that khat prices would rise to the level where smuggling would be an attractive proposition on a large scale.

It is impossible to know what would happen to khat imports but we might get some idea from looking at the USA. Obviously, no figures are available for the amount of khat smuggled into the USA but we can get some idea of how widespread it is by the coverage of seizures.

In December 2012, a number of media outlets in the USA, including examiner.com1, picked up on a press release from US Customs and Border Protection (USCBP)2 about the seizure of nearly 214 pounds of khat at Dulles International Airport. 214lbs is sufficient for something under 400 bundles compare to the over 30,000 bundles a day currently being handled by Heathrow. Such a seizure hardly speaks to a large trade in smuggling khat into the USA especially when USCBP notes that this was the largest seizure at the airport since April 2010 when 385 lbs (c700 bundles) was discovered. This is the only report of khat seizure on the whole USCBP website.

Catha edulis, khat

Incidentally, the USCBP says the 214lb seizure had a street value of $30,000. We know that enforcement agencies have a tendency to overstate street values but $30,000 for 400 bundles is $75 a bundle, or over ten times the legal UK price. Even if you doubt the connection between one seizure and the total market, I don’t see how anyone can doubt the evidence that illegal khat would be much more expensive and, therefore, much more damaging to families that currently.

Also, in December the Green Bay Gazette reported on a case where three men of Somali origin had been arrested after the US Department of Homeland Security intercepted two boxes of khat in Cincinnati. The story3 gives no weight but says the parcels were sent through the post so they couldn’t have been that large. The Gazette quotes local law enforcement as saying this is their first khat-related case.

So, if reading these tea leaves suggests that imports of khat will fall if there is a ban, why am I opposed to a ban?

Because, though some current users may give up, I fear that they will see this as an attack on their heritage by an uncaring government and any policy that creates disaffection is to be opposed.

Because, some users will continue to chew khat and spend more money on doing so causing bigger problems for their hard-pressed families.

Because, some users will end up criminalised for no good reason.

Because, and I grant this is speculation, someone may develop a ‘legal high’ or New Psychoactive Substance (NPS) to provide the stimulation associated with khat in a form that may initially be legal but, if made illegal, will be substantially easier to distribute than the plant itself.

I am in no doubt that, taken in isolation, there is no sensible grounds for outlawing the chewing of Catha edulis. But, the situation cannot be taken in isolation and, tomorrow, I’ll look at the other forces that could impact on a decision on khat at the present time.

References

1. Dulles CBP seizes over 213 pounds of khat in air cargo examiner.com 30/12/2012 
2. Dulles CBP Seizes Nearly 214 Pounds of Khat in Air Cargo US Customs and Border Protection 28/12/2012
3. Green Bay man gets probation in khat drug bust The Green Bay Gazette 26/12/2012

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