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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 29th November 2013

I said on Wednesday that I keep writing about Catha edulis, khat, because not many other people are and that seems to be confirmed by the limited coverage given to the report from the Home Affairs Select Committee following its evidence gathering on the reasons for the Home Secretary’s decision to schedule khat and its likely impact.

The HASC report is only ten pages long and shouldn’t have been hard to assimilate and report on.

The final paragraph of the report says;

‘We recommend that the Government introduce a scheme for licensing the importation of khat to the United Kingdom, instead of controlling khat under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. (Paragraph 255)’

Usually, when a select committee unequivocally says that government has got it completely wrong on a topic, the media give the ‘spat’ a lot of coverage. But, so far, there has been only limited media coverage judging by a Google news search for ‘khat OR qat’. Though one of returns is a report on the BBC website the subject does not seem to have been included in any broadcast news this morning (based on watching BBC1’s ‘Breakfast’ and listening to Radio 4’s ‘Today’).

Page 11 gives the formal minutes of the meeting approving the report and, though Michael Ellis, Conservative MP for Northampton North, who made it clear at the last meeting that he believes any intoxicating substance should be controlled, was not in attendance, there is no indication that there were any dissenting opinions.

The committee has not limited itself to saying that classification would be a mistake. It has put forward an alternative that would address the main reason given for the decision; that the UK could become a hub for the export of khat to countries where it is controlled.

The HASC suggests that khat imports are regulated with only licenced importers able to bring it into the country. As Paul Garlick QC said, on behalf of his client khat importer Mahamud Ahmed Mohammed, a licenced importer would not be so foolish as to risk his licence by allowing illegal re-export.

The report also believes that the effects of the ban in Kenya, where most of the UK’s khat (known in Kenya as miraa) is grown, would be that farmers losing their income could be fertile recruiting material for Al-Shabaab.

It would be nice if Theresa May simply said she was wrong and gave up the planned classification but that is highly unlikely given that her intention was to show her right-wing supporters how tough she is. Politicians like to have something to cite as the reason for changing positions and, I think, the HASC may have given Ms May the political cover she needs.

The terrible events at the Westgate mall in Nairobi in September can be used to demonstrate that the vulnerability of Kenya to terrorist subversion is far greater than was realised in July when the decision to classify khat was made. The myth of Al-Shabaab’s involvement in the khat trade can actually be put to good use by suggesting that miraa growers would turn to Al-Shabaab to find routes to market for what had become overnight an illegal product.

Whether the Home Secretary accepts the HASC report and acts on it or not, the conclusions are likely to be very helpful to the High Court action seeking a judicial review. Theresa May could wait for the outcome of that action so that she can blame the court for a climb-down. That, of course, would involve a substantial waste of money so it must be hoped that May will be pressured on all sides to act immediately.

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