European policy on khat

Drug policy lessons not learned
30 April 2014

The UK and the Netherlands commissioned distinguished scholars and experts to study the social and clinical harms of khat. These experts argued that any harms associated with khat did not require a criminal law response. In rejecting that conclusion and banning khat, these two governments have created an enabling environment for organized criminal networks and may exacerbate racial discrimination in drug law enforcement. Moreover, these policies put in danger the livelihood of thousands of people in some of the world’s lowest-income settings.

The UK and the Netherlands should at the very least be taking measures to mitigate all of the harms that have been made much more likely by these decisions. That is:

• The bilateral development agencies of the two countries should dedicate significant program resources to developing lucrative alternative livelihoods in the affected khat-growing areas.

• Law enforcement officials and police monitoring bodies should take particular care to ensure that these decisions will not create or exacerbate racial discrimination in drug policing.
• Anti-corruption and anti-organized crime officials should be prepared to minimize the harms, including the possibility of violence and extortion, in affected communities from the inevitable development of illicit khat markets.

The UK ban is an unwelcome development that lacks an evidence base and harm mitigating measures.

Key Points

• The proposed UK ban represents an approach to drugs that has not worked in the past. Prohibitionist responses to intoxicants have resulted in the criminalization and stigmatization of the users they are intended to help as well as the growth of illicit black markets. That expert views were side-lined in the process reveals a troubling approach to law-making and one that is all too familiar in drug policy.

• Khat is a mild stimulant derived from the plant Catha edulis grown in countries of the Arabian Peninsula such as Yemen and in the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya). Migrants and refugees from these countries are the principal consumers of khat in North America and Europe, with the UK being the last to criminalise the shrub. The Netherlands, previously a key distribution point for khat supplies to immigrant communities in countries such as Norway, Germany and Sweden, introduced legal measures against khat in January 2013.

• Criminalisation of khat in key Northern markets represents a major economic blow to rural communities in East Africa and the Middle East that are dependent for their livelihoods on export revenue from khat. In the consumer markets of the North, legal prohibition may exacerbate already discriminatory practices in stop and search by drug police and risks opening the door for “newly formed criminal organizations [to] supply khat, turning them into serious, hardened organized crime structures” where none existed before.

• In the UK, a novel constitutional mechanism has been used to articulate concern at the pending criminalisation of khat, which is due to come into effect this month. The Motion of Regret sponsored by Baroness Smith, will be read in the first week of May. It echoes the position of the World Health Organisation and other expert bodies that the risk of individual health and social harms are too small to justify criminalising the substance.