Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The UK Government bans khat, ignores advice of its own experts

The UK government has today announced it will go against the recommendations of its own drugs experts
(again) and ban khat, a plant mostly used by the UK’s Somali and Yemeni communities, that produces a mild stimulant effect when chewed.

Earlier this year, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the body responsible for providing the government with expert advice on drugs, produced a detailed review of the evidence (PDF) on the social and health harms of khat and offered recommendations on responses to the drug in the UK.

Although acknowledging gaps in the research data available, the ACMD found little evidence to support causal link between khat use and most of the adverse medical effects around which concerns had been raised (although noting a risk of liver toxicity in heavy users), and could also find only weak evidence that use of the drug was a cause of some the societal problems that it has been blamed for by some observers. Along with a series of prgamatic recommendations on educating and supporting affected communities, and treating those whose use becomes problematic, their conclusion on khats legal status was clear:
“The ACMD considers that the evidence of harms associated with the use of khat is insufficient to justify control and it would be inappropriate and disproportionate to classify khat under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.”
The Home Secreatary who ordered today's ban, Teresa May, has argued that the UK has become a transshipment point for khat because other countries have prohibited it. The ACMD, however, note that:
"it is likely that some khat is re-exported to countries where it is banned" (p.82)

"Fears of the UK becoming a hub for importation of khat appear not borne out by  the VAT figures provided by the HMRC regarding the volume of khat imported  into the UK since 2005 or by any evidence suggesting the UK is a landing point for the onward transportation of significant quantities of khat"(p.10)
The ACMD also point out that khat needs to be consumed within 36-48hours of harvesting or it loses its effects - another reason why the UK trafficking hub proposition lacks credibility. there simply isnt time for it to be transited through multiple destinations - it needs to go direct to consumer markets to be a viable product. 

The other key argument made by May has been concerns about a link between the khat trade and terrorism, specifically the Al Shabaab group in Somalia. On this question the ACMD are equally clear:
"in regard to international crime, it is known the Al Shabaab militia,which control parts of southern Somalia, tax sales of khat as all retail transactions of any product are taxed. However, in countries beyond the UK where khat has been prohibited it enters the illegal market through smuggling and illicit sale, and so becomes criminal activity by definition. To clarify, the ACMD has not been provided with any evidence of Al Shabaab or any other terrorist groups‘ involvement in khat export/sale, despite repeated requests for this information from a number of national and international official sources, including various Government bodies."(p.55)
Dr Axel Klein, one of the key experts on khat who gave evidence informing the ACMD report, told Transform that:
"There's no reason to support the ban except that other countries have done so. There is an alleged terror link but this looks ridiculous given that Al Shabaab in Somalia have been banning khat themselves. The trade has provided hundreds of UK Somalis with a livelihood, and their countrymen with a peaceful and agreeable past time.

For Islamic campaigners this has long been a thorn in the flesh of the community. Mafrishes are public spaces, where discussion ranges widely and freely, as friends gather to relax and enjoy. At a time of rising hostility and nationalism making the assimilation for even second or third Generation British Somalis more difficult, such spaces come at a premium. In Somali neighbourhoods like Tower Hamlets and Lambeth these mafrishes were the strongest organised opposition to the grip held by Islamic organisations over the community. A Conservative Home Secretary with backbench support has just handed radical Islam their first political success in the UK."
It is worth noting that the ACMD argues that the general absence of crime problems and criminal profits associated with khat are specifically due to the fact that it remains legal, stating that:
"There is no evidence of khat consumption being directly linked with serious or organised criminal behavior in the UK or to support the theory that khat is funding or fuelling crime. This is unsurprising given khat is not an illegal drug, is not a high value substance and therefore attracts very little profit from the UK market" (p.3)
"The ACMD has not fully explored the positive or negative  affects of criminalisation of khat. However, it can be assumed that if the price of khat increases, for example due to criminalisation, there is the  potential for exploitation by organised criminal gangs already involved  in the illegal drug trade and this would arguably increase funds available to such networks and groups if khat use went underground" (p.55)
and again:
"Evidence presented to the ACMD by practitioners and researchers  found no link between gang crime and khat use; although concerns were raised that if khat were criminalised this profile could change" (p.55)
The report notes that in countries where khat has been banned evidence suggests demand remains, prices rise on the newly illegal market and criminal opportunities are created. This analysis in fact closely echoes that of the ACMD's 2005 khat report:
“The khat industry is a legitimate business. There is no indication of  organised criminals or terrorists being involved in the UK trade, perhaps because of its legality. However, since the USA made khat illegal there is some evidence of organised criminals becoming involved in its shipment to the USA.”
It is clear therefore that the Home Secretary is not only responding to a problem her expert advisors say does not exist, but is also set to create the very problem she is claiming to be responding to - exactly as her advisors have explained will happen. 

The Government long ago divested itself of any authority with regard to the control of drugs, and has again failed to act on the advice of its appointed experts. By making khat illegal today it has added yet another drug to the already extensive product lines of organised criminals and unregulated dealers. It has at the same time criminalised a very specific minority community - the negative effects of which the ACMD has also warned of:
"To respond to these multilayered complex problems [faced by immigrant populations] by criminalising an already disadvantaged group in society deserves serious and  careful consideration, especially in light of the limitations of the findings of the research before the ACMD. A didactic approach is supported by the National Federation of Somali Associations in the Netherlands  which prefers education and information about the potential risks  related to the use of Khat, as well as a coordinated national approach  to address the social and economic problems members of the Somali Community are confronted with" (p.79)
"In the context of those communities where khat is used, consideration of the potential negative impact criminalisation may have should be  carefully balanced against the need for support to focus on the concerns raised by communities." (p.83)
The Home Office has given itself only one option – prohibition, and as Mazlow put it: "If the only tool in your tool box is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." The possibility of more effective regulation of the market has been dismissed

Prohibition is not going to be the solution to any problems with khat - real or imagined. As has happened with other drugs, it will exacerbate any existing problems as well as creating new ones associated with the inevitable illegal trade it will generate. We can make drugs lawful through legal regulation, or gift them to criminals through prohibition. The UK Government must urgently explore legal regulation, to keep criminals out of the trade and enable effective control of the market.

UPDATE: We're delighted to learn that Stephen Williams, Lib Dem  MP for Bristol West, has spoken out against today's ban and has indicated that the Liberal Democrats will be opposing the move. He says:
"As a Liberal Democrat I have always supported a science-led approach to drugs and as such I cannot support the move to ban khat.  
"The Government’s own experts reviewed khat and concluded that it should not be criminalised. I do not advocate the use of khat, which has been known to have negative side effects, but criminalising its users is a waste of time and money for the government and our police. 
"I will now work with my Lib Dem colleagues to oppose this move and hope to meet with the Home Secretary to personally put the case that this is a poorly thought policy which will harm, rather than help, many of my constituents in Bristol, especially Somalis."


Unknown said...

Experts say there is no conclusive evidence ! How many people have to suffer before they conclude its conclusive

Anonymous said...

Yet another another group of non-aggressive people is criminalised - and organised crime is handed a new business opportunity.

I have long given up any hope that there is anyone remotely sane at the Home Office.

What next? A ban on coffee?

Danny K said...

Dear Wainam

Even if there were large numbers suffering from the use of khat, the question is, in terms of a public policy response, would a ban increase or decrease overall suffering/harm?

On the basis of the evidence most experts have concluded that overall harms will increase when khat is banned.