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.
In the context of a fast changing and well documented market in legal highs, the case of khat (Catha edulis) provides an interesting anomaly. It is first of all a plant-based substance that undergoes minimal transformation or processing in the journey from farm to market. Secondly, khat has been consumed for hundreds if not thousands of years in the highlands of Eastern Africa and Southern Arabia. In European countries, khat use was first observed during the 1980s, but has only attracted wider attention in recent years.
The article reviews the status of khat, the most recent plant based psychoactive substance to reach a global market, and considers policy making processes in general and the framework of drug control in particular. The risk assessment and classification of psychoactive drugs is a contested arena where political, economic and moral agendas collide, leaving countries that have banned khat, with significant social costs. To best manage the risks arising from the increasing availability of khat it is therefore suggested to draft a regulatory framework with clear objectives and guiding principles.
E.J.M. Pennings, A. Opperhuizen, J.G.C. van Amsterdam
22 August 2008
In preparing a decision about the legal status of khat in the Netherlands, the Dutch Minister of Health requested CAM (Coordination point Assessment and Monitoring new drugs) to assess the overall risk of khat in the Netherlands. The present paper is a redraft of a report which formed the scientific basis of the risk evaluation procedure (October 2007). This report reviews the scientific data about khat available in the international literature. In addition, the report contains some information specific for the Netherlands (prevalence, availability of khat and public order aspects).