Tuesday, June 17, 2008

From Reefer Madness to Khat Psychosis

Sayeeda Warsi, Tory party shadow spokeswoman for community cohesion and social action (and former vice-chair of the Conservative party) announced recently that her party will make Khat illegal if they come to power.

Conservatives will ban khat

In the article she argues that khat is a far from harmless drug and that making it illegal will improve the situation of many in the Somalian community.

'This is a drug that is beginning to tear apart the social fabric of certain communities... When any section of society is under threat, affected or underachieving, we must all stand up. That is why a future Conservative government would legislate to make khat a classified drug.'

This contention has been used in relation to heroin in non-immigrant communities and is a key argument in the prohibitionist doctrine. The flaw in this line of argument is that the most damaging drug to society is alcohol and I'm betting that Ms Warsi isn't calling for the prohibtion of that.

Khat. Not illegal yet

Ms Warsi's article mentions the ACMD report commissioned by the present government in 2005 on whether khat should become a scheduled drug. However she is somewhat disingenuous about the report's conclusions - she argues that,

'The government decided that its use was not prevalent enough among the wider community, and so it remained legal.'

This lack of widespread use is not the major reason that it was decided to leave khat outside the drug classification system. The ACMD concluded that banning khat would be much more damaging to traditional khat using communities than it is at present.

'If khat becomes more expensive due to criminalisation there is the potential for exploitation by organised criminal gangs already involved in the trade of illegal drug.'

The ACMD report highlights the fact that this has already happened in the USA where it is already illegal.

'However, since the USA made khat illegal there is some evidence of organised criminals becoming involved in its shipment to the USA.'

In the UK khat costs roughly £4 per bundle (which works out to be about £15 per kg). In the USA khat costs $400 (£200) per kg because of its illegality. If nothing else the startling cost differentials shows what happens when a drug becomes illegal. The price hike would be detrimentaly to Somalian (and Yemeni) societies across the UK. Families that struggle to manage on their current incomes would suffer greatly if khat prices leapt tenfold. Men from such communities may well end up turning to criminality such as drug dealing in order make enough money to support their habits. And criminalising whole communities is not going to increase social cohesion or integration.

Ms Warsi argues that khat is used more in the UK than in traditonal khat using countries, that it can trigger paranoia and hallucinations, as well as increase the likelihood of domestic violence. However the ACMD looked into these claims and largely refuted them.
  • Use in the UK is the same or slightly lower than use in traditional khat using societies
  • Anecdotal evidence suggests there is a chance that it could be a cause of familial breakdown
  • In the UK there have been reports of psychosis after khat use however there is little evidence of this in traditional use countries. The ACMD notes that 'Evidence points to social stress such as the effects of war on the Somali population mixed with misuse of khat can increase the likelihood of the development of psychotic symptoms.'
  • Khat is not a 'gateway' drug although tobacco use is high amongst khat users
  • Khat is not associated with acquisitive crime

Making khat illegal would not only criminalise societies and raise the price dramatically leading further disenfranchisement amongst users but it could also glamorize it amongst certain groups and perhaps even cause use to spread outside its traditional societies.

In 2002 David Cameron , as a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, called for a rational debate about drug legalisation and Alan Duncan, a member of the shadow cabinet, has said,

"The only completely effective way to ameliorate the drug problem, and especially the crime which results from it, is to bring the industry into the open by legalising the distribution and consumption of all dangerous drugs, or at the very least by decriminalising their consumption."

The policy on khat (and the Tory's support for the reclassification of cannabis to a class B drug) is a further example of the Tory party's move from an evidence-based reform position to a rhetorical populist approach as the general election draws closer.


chrisbx515 said...

The next lot want to get back into power so the tough on drugs stance is back for them and so the merry-go-round continues and anyone with half a brain and the abilty to think for themselves can see that the drug laws do more harm the good.

Different Duncan said...

Of course its all politics, but I'm a bit confused by this tactic. Khat is a drug I doubt the vast majority of people have heard of. I can understand parties wanting to look tough on things the public are aware of and see as dangerous to society, like cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy etc, but this isn't the case for this particular drug. It appears the Tories still genuinely believe prohibition actually works.