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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 21st October 2013

I was going to write a piece about how familiarity leads to news fatigue. How something dreadful attracts little reporting because it happens regularly. Take, for example, the news from India that more than 40 people have died from drinking illegal alcohol (almost certainly made with methanol). It is a story that seems to have only attracted the attention of the Independent

Catha edulis, khat

I confess to doing the same myself. That Peter Hitchens has made a fool of himself in two debates about drug policy, and an even greater fool of himself in the blog entries he has written, to date, about those debates hardly seems worth mentioning. (If you are interested, Prof Alex Stevens has written a piece for ‘Talking Drugs’ summarising the debates.) And I nearly did it again this morning by thinking that yet another piece saying the Daily Mail is a dreadful publication is redundant.

What changed my mind was the realisation that the Mail’s piece about Catha edulis, khat, gives a very good idea of the way prohibitionists try to manipulate any article to suit their agenda.

We have to start with another story in the Independent, again, one that no-one else seemed to be interested in. On Friday, it was reported that a UK khat trader was seeking a judicial review of Theresa May’s decision to schedule khat under the Misuse of Drugs Act and that the Kenyan government and the regional government in the main growing area in Kenya were providing financial help to allow the challenge to be made.

After Ms May said her action was because she wanted to stop the UK being used as a hub for the transit of khat to countries in Europe where it is already illegal and then said, in a different debate, that she didn’t believe UK police resources should be deployed to deal with European problems, I contacted my MP to ask what were the real reasons for the ban. It took nearly three months for the Home Office to respond and it simply repeated its previous statements about the scheduling without answering my questions about the conflict of logic.

The Mail Online posted a story on Sunday evening to report this lawsuit. However, because this is the Mail, it couldn’t report that drug policy was facing a challenge and discuss the basis of that challenge. Instead, it framed the story around giving a picture of the khat trade in the UK.

There are so many lies and distortions in the piece that I’ll have to try and be brief in dealing with each.

The headline says;

‘The khat 'gold rush': Extraordinary picture shows boom in imports as dealers race to cash in before drug is made illegal next year’

Lest we forget, khat is a living plant so the notion that you could suddenly increase the amount shipped to the UK is odd to say the least and, in any case, what would be the point? The arguments against khat are that it is widely used throughout the Somali and Yemeni diasporas and there is plenty of evidence that it has not found a market outside of those communities. Could the Mail really be trying to infer that dealers are stock-piling ahead of the ‘ban’? With a shelf life of about three days, tops, you would have to be very dumb to think you could import khat now to sell in 2014 once the scheduling takes effect.

The first sub-heading says;

 ‘Last week 160,000 sticks of khat - a flowering shrub that produces a high when chewed - were delivered to a warehouse in Southall, West London’

I have no idea what the Mail means by ‘sticks of khat’. Khat is imported in bundles weighing about 250gms. The number of individual pieces in a bundle is variable but pictures in the Mail’s own story appear to show 20 plus pieces in a bunch. If the Mail meant ‘stick’ in the way the rest of the world understands then those ‘160,000 sticks of khat’ amount to around 8,000 bundles. Actually, the caption to the pictures shows that the Mail means ‘bundle’ when it says ‘stick’. I hope that there is an explanation for that choice of word other than the one that comes to mind first – that the reporter has no idea what he is writing about.Update

Catha edulis, khat

So, 160,000 bundles at 250gm per bundle. That’s 40 tonnes. As I wrote in January last year, when dealing with someone else who had demonstrated how little he knew about khat whilst presenting himself as well-informed, the literature review conducted as preparation for the ACMD’s consideration of khat found that imports amounted to 57.7 tonnes per week. Only the Mail would call 57.7 becoming 40 a ‘boom’.

The second sub-head is;

‘Little-known trade thought to be worth £80million in Britain alone’

This ‘little-known’ trade is legal and, therefore, pays VAT so it is as well-known as any other import business. The ACMD reported import value at about £14m. Taking 58 tonnes and the frequently quoted price of £3 a bundle and you get a market worth £36 million. Doubling the alleged value of ‘drugs’ is actually on the low side for most media but it is, nonetheless, a bogus number.

Third sub-head;

‘In July, Home Secretary Theresa May said she will make khat a class C drug after concerns it could be linked to mental illness and psychosis’

No, she did not. She wrote;

‘Failure to take decisive action and change the UK’s legislative position on khat would place the UK at a serious risk of becoming a single, regional hub for the illegal onward trafficking of khat to these countries.’

Other than that, she accepted that there was little or no evidence of harm but concluded that this meant khat caused harm.

The fourth and fifth sub-headings are actually true and relate to the legal case. So, I’ll move onto the story itself with this opening paragraph;

‘Britain is being flooded with tonnes of a potentially dangerous stimulant drug in a last minute ‘gold rush’ before it is banned.’

I've already shown that 'flooded' is complete nonsense so I'll go straight to ‘…potentially dangerous stimulant drug’. This is, of course, intended to make the reader think khat is similar to cocaine or ecstasy. The ACMD notes that it takes a long time for its effects to be felt because chewing only slowly releases the active ingredients. Khat is usually described as a mild stimulant with many saying it is closer in its effects to caffeine rather than the amphetamine often cited for comparison.

This misrepresentation of the effects is repeated in the sixth paragraph;

‘The capital’s Somali community is one of the biggest markets for the plant which is chewed to deliver a stimulant rush.’

It is tempting to take a cheap shot about just how lazy and idle you would have to be to consider that the effect of khat-chewing, building up over several hours, is a ‘rush’.

Because this is the Mail, the alleged terrorism link has to be brought out;

‘There are also concerns that the trade helps support Al Shabaab, an Al-Qaeda-inspired group behind the recent Nairobi mall atrocity.’

First, there is no evidence of a link to terrorism (though that could change once khat becomes much more valuable as a result of being an illegal substance) and, second, there are plenty of reports of Al Shabaab destroying khat and disrupting khat markets in Somalia.

And then, of course, we get the views of Abukar Awale because no piece about how ‘evil’ khat is can exist without his input.

It occurs to me that the appearance of Abukar Awale is evidence of how little harm khat does to other than a very tiny minority of very high users. Every piece about khat has comments from Awale suggesting that there is no-one else the media can turn to.

Catha edulis, khat

We’re approaching the end and I’ll skip a few transgressions to get to one of those universally applicable examples of how the media distorts the truth.

The third from last paragraph says;

‘In July, Miss May said she feared Britain has become an international hub for khat trafficking.’

It might have made sense to leave that point there because including the second last paragraph -;

‘She said: ‘Failure to take decisive action and change the UK’s legislative position would place the UK at a serious risk of becoming a single, regional hub for the illegal onward trafficking of khat.’

- just makes it clear that Ms May didn’t say ‘has become’. She said ‘serious risk of becoming’.

Risk is an assessment not a fact and, for someone looking to show right-wing Tories that their values are safe in her hands, over-stating risk is a useful tool.

When I gave up writing this blog daily I said I would use Twitter to replace some of the pieces I would have written. I realise that ‘Mail writes rubbish, again’ would fall inside Twitter’s 140 character limit but I thought it was worth taking the time to look at exactly why this story is rubbish from beginning to end.


Without making any further comment on the level of knowledge of the reporter credited with the Mail story, I was interested to find this story in the Daily Star flagged as 'EXCLUSIVE' and including photographs of the reporter with khat.

It is almost as bad as the Mail's story but with the added hilarity of the reporter being shown with a box of khat standing outside Southall police office. Given that khat is, still at the moment, perfectly legal, you might as well buy a carton of eggs and get a picture of yourself outside a police office.

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