For more than two decades, Maua enjoyed booming business propelled by the growth and sale of khat, known locally as miraa, a popular herb whose leaves and stems are chewed for the mild high they offer. But last year the UK, home to one of khat’s biggest markets, declared the stimulant a class C drug and banned all imports, prompting Maua’s rapid descent into economic purgatory.
The increasingly widespread use of ketum (or kratom) in Malaysia earlier this year prompted the Ministry of Home Affairs to lead a push to schedule it in the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952. On April 1, the amendment to the DDA was shelved. Opposition MP Wong Chen wrote a Facebook post detailing reasons for opposition to the amendment, including: usage as traditional medication, lack of socioeconomic considerations, and the need for evidence-based rehabilitation. He also emphasized that the country should be moving towards decriminalization of drugs.
Khat is as potent as a strong cup of coffee and has no organised crime involvement – yet the government wants to spend £150m on a ban that would create far more severe problems. When the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the government's expert advisors, were asked to consider khat, they said that it would be "inappropriate and disproportionate" to ban it. The cross-party home affairs select committee, on which I serve, produced a unanimous report opposing a ban. And yet the home secretary plans to do it anyway.
The leafy substance khat, grown by many Kenyan farmers, is of economic and cultural significance to many Africans. The UK government has decided, against the advice of its own experts, to treat khat as a class C drug to "protect vulnerable members of our communities". In July, UK Home Secretary Theresa May said khat would be banned "at the earliest possible opportunity" but a ban has yet to be imposed. A team of Kenyan MPs lobby the UK government not to follow suit.
A decision by the UK government to ban the stimulant khat later this year is facing fierce resistance in Kenya from those farming the mildly narcotic leaves for export. Local leaders are not happy with the UK's decision to reclassify khat as a class C drug. The local MP, Kubai Kiringo, tells me Kenya could reconsider its ties to Britain if the UK does not drop the ban. "We feel bitter and short-changed. We want the home secretary to revise her decision," he says. (See also: Harmless habit or dangerous drug?)
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) said there was "insufficient evidence" that khat caused health problems. The stimulant is traditionally used by members of the Somali, Yemeni and Ethiopian communities. It has been outlawed by the US and Canada and in most European countries, most recently by the Netherlands. The review was commissioned by the Home Office. The ACMD said there was "no evidence" khat was directly linked with serious or organised crime. (See also: Chewing over Khat prohibition)