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.
Illicit drugs made from plants (e.g., cocaine, heroin) are being replaced in some national drug markets by those that are synthesized (e.g., methamphetamine, fentanyl). The U.S. has had a parallel experience in the past decade with the rise of illicit consumption of synthetic opioids and cannabinoids. If illicit drug markets continue to separate from an agricultural base, it would upend traditional understandings of drug markets and drug policy.
Today, khat joined the range of prohibited substances that fall under the UK Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Those who distribute this Class C drug can now face 14 years imprisonment – the same maximum sentence that applies to individuals who cause death by dangerous driving, and four years more than the maximum penalty for sexual assault. So what exactly is khat, and why has it attracted such harsh legislation? (See also: Khat: Update - Ban to be implemented on the 24th of June)
Police have been officially advised to use their discretion in deciding how to enforce the ban on qat, a mild herbal stimulant, that has been widely used in Britain's Somali, Yemeni and Ethiopian communities. Official guidelines from the Association of Chief Police Officers tells constables that in applying a "three strikes" enforcement policy they should take into account that qat has "historically not been a controlled drug and was part of the culture of certain communities linked to the Horn of Africa." (See also: Stimulant khat banned as illegal class C drug in UK)
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.
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.
Norwegian customs officials are calling for increased funding after a surge in the quantity of synthetic cannabis coming into the country - most of it bought on the internet and delivered by post. "The problem is that synthetic cannabis is very much more dangerous than ordinary cannabis," according to the Norwegian Customs Association. "You never know what's in it." (See also: Norway's greens call for state cannabis farms)
Public Health Minister Pradit Sintavanarong confirmed yesterday that the narcotics control committee under the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has still not reached a decision on whether to remove kratom from the prohibited narcotics list. It could take another two months for the sub-panel, assigned to gather information on the tropical evergreen, to reach its conclusions. (See also: Justice favours legalising krathom and Kratom in Thailand)
The leaves of kratom, a native of Southeast Asia in the coffee family, are used to relieve pain and improve mood as an opiate substitute and stimulant. The herb is also combined with cough syrup to make a popular beverage in Thailand called "4x100." Because of its psychoactive properties, kratom is illegal in Thailand, Australia, Myanmar (Burma) and Malaysia. Thailand is considering legalizing kratom as a safer alternative for meth addicts, and U.S. researchers are studying its potential to help opiate abusers kick the habit without withdrawal side effects.
The legal status of kratom is under review in Thailand. Options include making kratom available only by prescription, decriminalizing small amounts and total legalization. “There’s never been a single death associated with kratom,” said Pascal Tanguay, who investigated kratom use for the Transnational Institute. “People have been chewing this for thousands of years with no cases of overdose, psychosis, murder, violent crime. Never in all of recorded history.”
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?)
New psychoactive drugs (NPDs, new psychoactive substances) enter the market all the time. However, it takes several months to ban these NPDs and immediate action is generally not possible. Several European countries and drug enforcement officers insist on a faster procedure to ban NPDs. Introduction of generic legislation, in which clusters of psychotropic drugs are banned in advance, has been mentioned as a possible solution. Here we discuss the pros and cons of such an approach.
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.