Bundles of khat at an Ethiopian khat market. (Photo by A Davey)
The British government are introducing a ban on khat, the chewable mild stimulant that is less stimulating than a double espresso and popular among Somali, Ethiopian and Yemeni communities. Despite the fact that this move is likely to cripple the economies in which khat is grown – and even though the government's own advisory council have said the substance should remain legal – the Tories are bowing to US pressure to criminalise the relatively harmless herb.
The Americans weren't too happy about all the eastern Africans legally munching away on khat in the UK because it meant that anyone looking to fly shipments of it over to the US wouldn't run into trouble this side of the Atlantic. Which is 99 percent likely to be the reason it's being criminalised by the UK government. But their justification – totally independent of American interests, of course – is that khat is having a negative effect on the health of Africans living in the UK.
Whatever their motivation, will a ban on the plant actually stop it from entering the country?
One man who knows all about transporting khat internationally behind the authorities' backs is Manchester native Colin "Renno" Rennicks. He was locked up on the super-maximum-security wing of an American prison after being caught attempting to sneak 48 kilos of the stuff through US customs. I got in touch with Renno to see what he makes of the ban.
Colin "Renno" Rennicks. (Photo courtesy of Colin Blaney)
VICE: So, 48 kilos sounds like a lot of khat.
Colin "Renno" Rennicks: Yeah, it was basically a truckload.
How did you go about smuggling such a large quantity of it?
Just on the plane, in two massive wheelie bin things.
How did customs get onto it?
We got grassed up from Manchester by a jealous boyfriend or husband or whatever. Customs pulled us and found it. The customs guy said, "Man, what is that?" I said, "That’s khat, mate." He thought I was taking the piss out of him and said, "God damn, what the fuck is that, man?" I said it again: "That’s fucking khat, mate." He didn’t know what the fuck khat was. My solicitor didn’t even know what it was. I was thinking to myself, ‘Do I even know what it is?’
What happened after all the confusion?
Me and the girl Michelle, who I was with, got sent to jail.
Okay. I’ve heard Michelle was part of an all-female gang?
Yeah, the Terrahawks. They were a crew of north Manchester heavy chicks.
(Photo by Erik Hersman)
What did you make of the American prison system?
It was pretty funny, really, because the Yanks are all snitches. They grass each other up for everything. I was pretty disappointed in the Americans because they did it all the time. They got treated better if they stuck a few people in. The Yankee doodles were fucking soft, man. The other unbelievable thing was that they played poker for their meals, as in their breakfast, dinner and tea. They called the meals "trays". That meant that, if you lost your card game, you were getting no dinner and, if you went double or quits, you were going to lose your breakfast and dinner. You could end up not eating for a couple of days and, if you didn’t pay up, you’d get dragged out of the cell and given a good kicking. After that, you weren’t allowed round the table again because you couldn’t pay.
Did any other inmates know about khat?
One thing that sticks in my mind was the woman when I went for my prison medical. She said, "Khat? Did you know that that’s a derivative of ketamine?" She was trying to put the horrors up me. I just said, "Yeahhh" [sarcastically] and started clapping, then walked off. They get a bit smart, the Yankee doodles. I like them as a race, but they always grass each other up, which is what I don’t like about them. They’re all snitches; I’ve seen it, mate. They seem to be scared of fighting with each other, too. They threaten each other and shout at each other and they grass each other up, but that’s about it. I didn’t like the attitude of those fuckers.
I see. How do you think your time in jail compared to the stereotypes about the prison system over there?
What you hear is a load of shit. They’re not that tough in there. You've got people crying in corners.
How long were you in prison for altogether?
It was only eight weeks.
More bundles of khat at the Ethiopian khat market. (Photo by A Davey)
How did you end up getting out?
I was on a table full of Irish-American criminals, and one of them said, "Why don’t you hit the phone and phone your attorney?" I took his advice and my lawyer told me that things had gone in my favour and I was out the next morning. There had only ever been one case of khat being seized in America before at that point, which was when some Brits from London smuggled it over to Baltimore. The case against them was dismissed, so the courts had no choice but to dismiss my case as well, for the sake of consistency. Khat wasn’t as widely known over there as it is nowadays. Even the judge didn’t know what it was.
Do you think the ban will encourage people to start smuggling it into England?
No, I don’t think anything will change. The Somali dudes like their khat and they will fucking enjoy their khat. Everybody will do the same as usual; the ban doesn't matter. It’s really not important for the Somali people. They’re going to carry on doing their khat all day long and think, ‘Fuck everybody else.’ But what I did wasn’t smuggling in my eyes; I was just taking certain produce from one place to another. It was no big deal – it was khat! The Yankee doodles didn’t know what the fuck it was. It could have been sprouts and they would have nicked me for bringing produce into their country.
Have you ever tried it yourself?
Yeah, I had it in Germany. When I was over there, all my Somali mates chewed it. There’s nothing about it whatsoever. You might be awake a bit, but there’s no boost or nothing.
So I take it you’re against the ban, then?
I certainly am, yeah.
From your experience, what type of people use khat in the UK?
Mostly Somalis – not ones who are into drugs. It’s not even really a drug; there’s no big deal to it.
Have you ever encountered anybody with an addiction or any health problems stemming from it?
Agree with Renno that the khat ban is dumb? Read this: The Khat Ban Is Harmful and Pointless