The booming trade in legal highs will go underground in the face of blanket bans, such as that now being debated in Britain, European drug experts have warned in the annual report of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). They say online "grey marketplaces" selling new psychoactive substances (NPS) and greater use of social media are emerging as alternatives to the high street "head shops" and public websites likely to be shut down by laws enforcing a blanket ban on the trade. (See also: Legal highs: which drugs will be banned in the UK?)
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.
A clash between the home secretary, Theresa May, and her expert drugs advisory group is looming after it decided against banning qat, a mild herbal stimulant, traditionally used in Britain's Somali, Yemeni and Ethiopian communities. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs said there was insufficient evidence that Qat caused health or wider societal problems to justify a ban in Britain.
On the basis of the available evidence, the overwhelming majority of Council members consider that khat should not be controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. In summary the reason for this is that, save for the issue of liver toxicity, although there may be a correlation or association between the use of khat and various negative social indicators, it is not possible to conclude that there is any causal link.
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)
Khat, a stimulant drug, is chewed by around 90,000 people in the east African and Yemeni communities in the UK. But now the Home Office is considering banning the substance. During the last election, pro-ban activists met politicians, offering them community votes. In return, they wanted their support for the ban on khat. Some politicians accepted the offer and supported the mission.
Calls for the herbal high khat to be banned in the UK have been renewed days before a government report into its usage is due to be published. Some members of the British-Somali community have been calling for years for khat to be made illegal. But traders say a ban would not mean an end to khat in the UK as, according to them, smuggled khat is still widely available in Europe and the US, although it is more expensive.
The all-party parliamentary group on drug policy reform undertook an inquiry into the implications of the arrival of "legal highs" – a new substance appeared on the UK market every week in 2012. The prime minister says the current policy is working. I wish it were. But as the use of cannabis has declined by a few percentage points over the past few years, the use of "legal highs" has soared. The position for drugs users is therefore more dangerous than it was a few years ago.
Ruth Runciman, Chair of the UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC)
15 October 2012
Despite the successes of recent years, there are still approximately 2,000 drug-related deaths in the UKevery year. Nearly 400,000 people have serious drug problems and the annual cost to society is estimated to be about £15bn. There is little or no evidence to support much of current expenditure on law enforcement and education in schools. We spend billions a year without knowing if it does any good. In boom years this was objectionable; now it is unsustainable.