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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 22nd November 2013

It has been a busy week for Catha edulis, khat, with four separate, but related events. I thought it was worth summarising them but I should start by saying that three of the four confused me.

The first, and most straightforward, happened on Tuesday when the Home Affairs Select Committee held an evidence gathering session focusing on New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) and khat. The video recording of the session is available. There were four groups of witnesses and though the first three had been invited to appear primarily to speak about NPS the chairman, Keith Vaz MP, asked all of them about khat and made a point of telling each group that he had come to no harm after chewing khat during visits to his country of birth, Yemen.

But it was the fourth pair that was in attendance to talk solely about khat. Mahamud Ahmed Mohammed is the khat trader who is leading the request for a judicial review of the Home Secretary’s decision to classify khat under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA) and Paul Garlick QC is the barrister representing him. Their evidence starts at 1:31:50 into the recording.

Mr Mohammed was, as you might expect, over-awed by his situation and his answers were brief and softly spoken but his QC, also as expected, was eloquent in describing the harms that would result from classification and the grounds for bringing the current action. In answer to one question, possibly the most important of the afternoon, Mr Garlick explained that the process of applying for the judicial review and appealing if the first request is refused was likely to last until February 2014 or beyond.

What struck most was what wasn’t said. Like all parliamentary select committees, the HASC is made of members from different parties with a range of opinions. The HASC has some drug law hawks amongst its membership. You can be sure of this because the committee concluded its report into drugs by calling for a royal commission to examine the evidence rather than an immediate change in the law. But these hawks were noticeably silent during the questioning about khat with no-one championing a ban.

At the end of the session, Mr Vaz referred to the meeting of the Delegated Legislation Committee scheduled for Monday 25th November where the proposed classification was to be debated and encouraged members of the committee to try and get the matter raised in a full House of Commons session. I don’t think even Theresa May could spin the committee’s position as being supportive of hers.

I phrased that last sentence that way because the second event of the week was Ms May doing a mixture of spinning and arse-covering. She wrote to the ACMD and that letter was published by the Home Office. The letter has a lot to say about offering support but is silent on how you can claim that making people criminals is supporting them.

What this letter is really for is to give the Home Office something to point to when it gets accused of ignoring the ACMD’s advice which was that khat should not be classified but that problems users and their communities should get more support. “See, see, we almost completely accepted the ACMD’s advice” ignoring the fact that not accepting the advice on classification makes all the rest a nonsense.

There is also a wider problem with May’s letter and it touches one of my hobby horses. In a section headed ‘Proportionate Policing’, she gets as close as she can to saying that individual users will not be targeted and enforcement will focus on preventing importation. One of my objections to the MDA is that its irrationality brings the whole rule of law into disrepute. Making something illegal at the same time as giving a big signal that you don’t want the law to be enforced can only add to the problem.

Before leaving this document it has to be said that giving the police the power to arrest people from an ethnic minority and then expecting them to apply that power wisely flies in the face of all the evidence from the way ‘stop and search’ is racially biased.

The third event was the publication of a POSTNote by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology entitled ‘Minimising the harms of khat’. It turns out that this document is a summary for MPs about khat and the basis for the government’s decision to schedule it rather than being, as the title implies, a guide to the safe use of this plant.

It is a typically Chinese whispers sort of document. The overview states that;

‘Over the past decade the media, politicians and immigrant communities have expressed concern over the medical and social harms associated with khat consumption.’

That sentence should, of course, read;

‘Over the past decade SOME PARTS OF the media, SOME politicians and SOME MEMBERS of immigrant communities have expressed concern over the UNPROVEN medical and social harms CLAIMED TO BE associated with khat consumption.’

It also claims that the ACMD ‘recommended the provision of education and therapeutic services amongst relevant UK communities’ whereas the ACMD was speaking about the small minority of members of those communities for whom khat use is problematic. The Chinese whisper has made khat universally harmful.

The final event is the most interesting. On Thursday, Dr Julian Huppert MP tweeted to say that Monday’s Delegated Legislation Committee meeting, due to debate the intended classification of khat (though without any power to block the change in regulation), had been cancelled. Not postponed; cancelled.

Though the committee has no power, I assume that a robust criticism of a proposal would, at least, be embarrassing and, perhaps, the government has acted to prevent that in which case we’ll have to wait and see what concessions it has made to make the committee meeting unnecessary. Or, it could be that the Home Office has accepted that the sensible thing to do is to delay action until the legal process surrounding the application for judicial review is fully completed.

Dr Huppert tweeted that the cancellation was ‘good news’ so my fingers are crossed that Theresa May could be about to back down from her insane proposal. That would be good news even though it would mean my act of destruction earlier this year was unnecessary.   

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