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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 18th June 2012

Another amazingly poor piece about Catha edulis, khat, appeared on Saturday evening on the Mail Online. The headline;

‘This is khat: The natural high available on British streets...and suspected of funding terrorism1

is, as you would expect extremely misleading but I’ll leave that to one side and focus on what the writer has to say.

The writer, Aidan Hartley, was born in Kenya and so, I assume, we are supposed to take it that he knows about Africa. His biography says that he attended Selborne School in Dorset before going to Oxford so I think it is fair to say that his experience of Africa is not shared by the majority of Africans. (I spent seven years, in the 1970s, living in Africa and whilst I may have observed the lives of ordinary Africans, including the three who worked for me as servants helping to tend the half acre garden and keep the swimming pool clean, I would not claim to have any special knowledge of how those lives are lived.)

There is a sub-heading stating;

‘The khat industry in Kenya alone employs 500,000 farmers and dealers – and is worth nearly £80 million a year’

It is important to stress that statistics about Kenya are not very reliable and likely to be very much out of date. Latest census figures for the population of Kenya’s Eastern Region where miraa, the local name for khat, is grown seem to be from 1999 but projections suggest that the total population is a little under 6 million. So, the suggestion is that around 1 in 12 of the population is involved in miraa.

Catha edulis, khat

The Household Budget Survey for Kenya for 2005/6 shows just over 33,000 acres of miraa being grown. Significantly, this is out of a total of 3.2 million acres under cultivation in the region. Of course, the ‘and dealers’ included in that 500,000 may not be in the Eastern Region. Suppose only half the total are involved in growing. That is 7.5 persons per acre for growing khat and implies that 24 million people would be required to cultivate the rest of the 3.2 million acres.

Again, I stress statistics for miraa in Kenya are hard to find and unreliable but, I think, my deeply flawed analysis still shows that saying 500,000 people are involved in the trade is nonsense.

It is not worth trying to unravel the £80m value. No total production figures are available and Hartley doesn’t give a basis for the figure. Is that basing all production on UK retail price? Is it farm gate price? Is it FOB export price? Is it a number plucked out of the air?

Hartley begins the main body of the report by setting the scene. Pointing out how quickly khat decays he says;

‘…the bundles are quickly loaded onto trucks and driven at insane speeds down a British-built road to the international airport in the capital, Nairobi.’

I hope Henic Agencies Ltd will forgive me copying a picture from its ‘Khat Kenya’ website but I think it shows that what would be an ‘insane speed’ for this Toyota is, probably, a lot slower that Hartley wants us to imagine.

Khat loaded onto Toyota in Kenya 

I’m really not sure I know why it was necessary to even mention that the trucks travel ‘a British-built road’ unless the intention is to appeal to the natural xenophobia of Mail readers and confirm their prejudice that overseas aid projects are a waste of money.

From the distribution in Kenya, Hartley moves to the arrival of the miraa, now called khat, in Somalia and explains something that has been baffling governments around the world for years.

‘A huge amount is flown to Somalia, which has torn itself apart in a relentless civil war. In its capital, Mogadishu, warlords and their militias fight over the trade.’ So, the upheaval in Somalia has nothing to do with tribal, ethnic and religious differences; it’s all due to khat.

And that is not just fighting over the trade. Apparently, khat produces the sort of Reefer Madness that cannabis was claimed to produce;

‘Mornings are calm there, before the khat flights arrive in the city. But around noon the gunfire erupts, and afternoons are often full of explosions, death, and men with green khat juice dribbling down their chins.’

I’ve read a lot about khat over the years and written about it, quite a bit, but I’ve never before come across anyone claiming that it produces a violent reaction in users. That really is a pretty desperate claim to try and support this ill-founded argument for outlawing khat.

Catha edulis, khat

Then there is the attempt to make khat seem much stronger than it is. Hartley tells us;

‘In the U.S., khat is regarded as a narcotic ranked alongside heroin and cocaine. Convicted smugglers are given long jail sentences.’

In fact, in the USA, khat is placed in schedule 1 whereas cocaine is in schedule 2 and that says a lot about the illogical scheduling of substances in the USA and nothing about khat.

Then Hartley takes the reader to Heathrow to watch the distribution of khat after clearing UK customs. In case anyone isn’t familiar with the area he gives this description of Hayes in Middlesex;

‘It’s a neighbourhood dotted with Sikh temples, locked churches in mossy graveyards, sari shops and billboards advertising immigration lawyers.’

That image of Christianity in retreat and decline in the face of the takeover by ‘foreigners’ is classic Mail stereotyping and makes me quite angry.

But, my anger turns to laughter when I read what is happening at the import warehouses;

‘Dozens of Somali men are wandering about as lorries unload khat in vegetable cartons.

‘Ragged and half-crazed, some run about with khat bundles bulging out of pockets helping traders to load cartons, apparently in return for more khat. It’s mayhem, but at least there’s no gunfire.’

‘Ragged and half-crazed’? I wonder if Mr Hartley would describe the market porters at Smithfield or New Spitalfields or Billingsgate in those terms. There’s also an interesting word in that section ‘apparently’. That means ‘I have no idea if these are just casual labourers working for ‘a fix’ but it helps to build my fictional picture of this substance’.

Briefly, Mr Hartley flirts with some more reliable information. Remember, from the headline, khat is ‘suspected of funding terrorism’ but a trader assures him that there is no sense in connecting Al-Shabaab to the khat trade. Hartley points out that Al-Shabaab is said to be opposed to the use of khat, for religious reasons, and has been accused of killing khat dealers.

There are, certainly, news reports of killings said to have been committed by Al Shabaab2,3 but, at other times, it seems to simply arrest dealers.4  

Such antipathy towards khat would seem to suggest that Al-Shabaab are not profiting from it but Hartley cannot allow that conclusion to destroy his theme so he claims that the Taliban have the same religious objection to opium but that doesn’t stop them exploiting it for profit.

Catha edulis, khat

The truth is that the question of whether khat and opium are permitted under the Qur’an is one that gives Islamic scholars plenty to chew on.

From Heathrow, Hartley follows the khat to London and, again, seems to shoot himself in the foot. After reporting that a box of khat selling for between £60 and £75 gives the retailer only £10 profit he muses;

‘In other words, if Al-Shabaab is trying to raise money to pay for terrorism – why would it bother smuggling khat?’

Add that to a comment attributed to ‘a Western intelligence source’ that it is the USA that is pushing the notion of a terrorist link to the khat trade in the hope of swaying the UK’s current deliberations over the status of khat and you would have thought Hartley would have come down on the side of there being no evidence of such a link.

Hartley’s report continues with anecdotes from various khat users and non-users. There are all the usual unevidenced assertions. “…it’s spreading to young people” says one person in spite of all the survey evidence that young people in the Somali Diaspora are far more likely to use ‘western’ drugs to demonstrate their assimilation than go to the bother of chewing ‘old people’s’ khat.

Khat is blamed for the way Somali men treat their wives when, in reality, the supremacy of the husband is a key part of Somali society that was normal at home but seems out of place in Britain.

Perhaps because Hartley doesn’t seem to know what he really thinks, he finishes his piece with a quote from Abukar Awale, the self-appointed anti-khat spokesman for the Somali community.

Mr Awale says ‘It’s time we fell in line with the rest of Europe.’

Mail Online calls for closer European integration. Surely not.

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