Khat really is a revolting drug. It tastes like dysentery. Also, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried getting high on the stuff, but it’s basically impossible, I’ve honestly received emails that've had more of a psychotropic effect on me than khat. I mean this is a drug that is so mild that according to its Wikipedia page, even Charles Dickens called bullshit on it, saying: “Europeans used to stronger stimulants, are little affected by the use of kat [sic]“. Once the guy who wrote Little Dorrit is snubbing his nose at your gear, you can probably stop worrying about ODing.
Over the last month, while shooting a film for VICE, I’ve chewed a lot of the stuff – I’ve chewed the stuff in airport hangars in Heathrow, in grotty social clubs in Southall, in al Shabaab-y bits of Nairobi and on a mountainside in central Kenya. And honestly. I’ve not really felt a thing.
So why is the UK government so desperate to ban this mildly stimulating stuff? Well, here are some of the reasons Theresa May (that’s the Home Secretary, BTW) thinks it needs to be eradicated from our streets:
1 – It funds terrorism.
2 – It’s deadly.
3 – It’s destroying the UK’s Somali community.
4 – The UK will become a hub of international khat dealing, leading to criminal gangs heading here to wreak havoc while chasing khat gold.
5 – It’s generally a good idea to illegalise drugs.
Unfortunately, all of those rather rational sounding reasons amount to little more than a sack of shit.
On Wednesday, the Home Affairs Committee - a watchdog which keeps tabs on the Home Office's excesses - met to discuss khat and the planned banning of the drug. Theresa May announced on the 3rd of July that the government intended to ban the substance. This was controversially against the advise of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, whose report on khat had concluded that there was no real evidence of adverse medical effects. In fact, if you ever fancy a protracted suicide, you could struggle your way through the Drug Science, Policy and Law paper on khat; but I can sum it up for you here: “No, khat doesn’t kill you.” Of the 15 people whose deaths have been associated with khat by anti-drug campaigners between 2004 and 2009, “the role of khat is highly tenuous”. In fact, 'tenuous' is generous; one of those people died of a heroin overdose, while quite a lot of them suffered accidents.
The Home Affairs Committee’s report also suggested that any evidence of khat having negative societal effects on the groups who used it was inconclusive. Back in November, I visited the Somali Community Centre in Kentish Town. There I was told repeatedly that khat must be banned, that the drug was robbing Somali men of their ambition and contributing to the collapse of Somali families. It’s true, every night, across Britain, thousands of Somali men gather at mafrishes – khat cafes, basically – and chew the stuff. They sit about, they talk about life, they watch the Champions League, they smoke fags, they tell jokes – basically it’s a pub, except that at the end of the night they’re all still able to drive home.
From my experiences of mafrishes in Kentish Town and Southall, they’re overwhelmingly male environments. This is what community workers at the Somali Community Centre are worried about: men getting high with their mates instead of looking after their families. No doubt, it’s awful, hurtful and damaging for the ignored families, but khat hardly invented feckless men and, as far as I know, feckless men are not something the government has ever felt the need to legislate against. I’m yet to see police squads raiding pubs and five-a-side games, bundling errant fathers into vans and dropping them off at home with a bouquet of flowers and a resolve to do the cooking at least twice a week. For government representatives to try to tackle this goes beyond nannying, it seems more like persecution. I mean isn’t the beauty of Britain that all people, of all races have an equal opportunity to totally piss their lives away?
Abulkar Awale is a Somali TV star living in London. Every week he appears on his talk show on the Somali Channel and, more often than not, sounds off about the evils of khat. A former user, Awale claims the drug ruined his life, is responsible for multiple deaths and funds terrorism. The ACMD have called him a zealot, but he’s the most high-profile anti-khat campaigner, having been to Downing Street to push his agenda. He’s a nice guy and invited me onto his show last month, but once we were there, we didn’t agree much.
It’s Abulkar who most often links khat with terrorism, specifically with the Islamic fundamentalist group al Shabaab, due to their East African connections. Frankly, these links are tenuous at best and insulting at worst. In 2013, the ACMD were unable to find “any evidence of al Shabaab or any other terrorist group‘s involvement in the export or sale of khat despite consultation with national and international official bodies”. In fact, the only link between khat and terror seems to have been hearsay. Even Awale seems to admit that he only uses the 'terror' word to get people’s attention. He once told the Independent: "This is the tool for me. I will put this on the table and say, 'Now you must act.' And they will act. When this country hears terrorism, they will act."
In fact, while in Nairobi, young Somali men working in the khat trade told me that were they to lose the UK market, those working in poor areas such as Eastleigh would turn to al Shabaab for support after losing their jobs. Similarly, this week’s report predicted the law could draw UK citizens on the fringe toward extremism: "We cannot afford for those who are already marginalised to be pushed towards criminality or extremism. It is vital that prohibition in the UK does not result in an increase in recruitment of al Shabaab abroad."
It’s worth noting that al Shabaab – being fundamentalist Muslims – aren’t exactly the biggest fans of khat and there are reports that they cut the head off a khat dealer in Somalia back in 2012. Of course, an aversion to smack never stopped al Qaeda from selling the stuff, so it’d be silly to claim that absolutely no khat money anywhere in East Africa ends up in al Shabaab’s pockets. But it’s very doubtful it’s from the UK trade.
Reading today’s report, it seems that Theresa May’s number one fear surrounding khat is the idea that the UK will become a hub for international smuggling. Now that the majority of European countries have illegalised the drug, May fears that criminal gangs might start smuggling from the UK. Clearly, that’s not a fantasy, but there’s a certain irony in illegalising a drug in order to stop crime.
If May’s plan to turn khat into a class C drug (alongside the likes of ket and GHB) go ahead, men like my mate Mahmud Ahmed Mohammed, the biggest khat importer in the UK, will find themselves replaced with smuggling gangs. Those UK-based khat users who don’t want to give up their habit will find themselves criminals. Say what you want about a khat habit destroying the family, but try having a dad in prison. Say what you want about a khat habit destroying a man’s ambition, but try getting a job as a first-generation immigrant with a criminal record. The image of men sitting around, chewing stalks in dingy flats may, for some stupid reason, intimidate certain people, but I don’t see how flooding those flats with coppers on a raid would make the situation any better.
Follow Alex on Twitter: @terriblesoup
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