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The Khat Ban Is Harmful and Pointless

So says Professor David Nutt, the exiled prince of UK drugs politics.
July 4, 2013, 7:00am

Photo by Erik Hersman

There are a great many people in the UK who won't have heard of khat. It's not a drug that's ever been glamourised in popular music or film; there is no khat Trainspotting or "Ebeneezer Goode". Sure, the Mail may have linked it to terrorism and street attacks carried out by immigrants, but what haven't the Mail linked to terrorism and street attacks carried out by immigrants? That's right: nothing apart from Clare Balding, fountain pens and adolescent girls in bikinis. So, unless you’re one of the 110,000 Somalis currently living in the UK (35 percent of whom apparently admit to using it) you might not be aware that it's a herbal stimulant that has a mild euphoric effect when chewed. It's mainly used in mafrishes (basically khat cafes) by Somali, Yemeni and Ethiopian gentlemen looking to get faintly wired in their downtime. A member of One Direction isn't going to get caught munching it in public and inadvertently hook the nation's youth on it any time soon.

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Nevertheless, Home Secretary Theresa May again went against the advice of the ACMD (Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs) yesterday and decided to ban khat by making the chewable coffee a Class C drug, right down there next to ketamine. Possession of khat will now carry up to two years imprisonment and a fine, while supplying it will carry up to 14 years. I called Professor David Nutt, who was famously sacked as head of the ACMD for his forthright views on ecstasy and alcohol, to get his view. According to him, the ban only came about because of pressure from the US, and it unnecessarily criminalises minority groups.

VICE: For the uninitiated, what on Earth is khat?
David Nutt: Khat is a chewable form of coffee.

Okay, and who mainly uses it?
People from East Africa; Somalis, Yemenis, Ethiopians…

In January, the ACMD said there was insufficient evidence suggesting that khat causes health problems.
That’s correct.

So why have the Home Office decided to ban it?
They've been wanting to for a long time. Americans have been putting pressure on the UK to ban it because we are the main transit point from Africa into the USA. Ever since khat's been banned in the USA, there has been massive smuggling and criminal activity around khat, and they want us to help them with their problems. It’s not a problem in this country at present.

Photo by Matt Shea

That sounds somewhat reasonable – that they wanted to prevent crime in other countries?
Criminalising people in our country who are using an ethnically sanctioned, traditional drug? Would we ban alcohol in Britain if America prohibited it? That’s ridiculous! It’s totally wrong! After banning it they've just had a lot more crime, as always happens when you ban something. They’re trying to unload some of their crime onto the UK. If we ban it in the UK, there’ll be a massive increase in criminal activity. We shouldn’t comply with their irrational demands to ban drugs. Absolutely not.

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And what are the potential health risks of chewing khat?
Khat is like coffee: you take a lot of it, you get a bit wired. There’s some suggestion that if you chew a lot and it’s been sprayed with insecticide then you could get some problems in the mouth, and there are some cases of liver cirrhosis associated with it. In some cases, some people get a bit psychotic chewing it. But it’s a pretty harmless thing. Chewing khat for a couple of hours is like drinking four espressos.

Could those symptoms also appear in people who drink espressos?
It’s quite a low-grade stimulant, and has been around since before coffee. Coffee and khat both come from the same part of the world. With khat you can’t actually brew it – you have to chew it – whereas coffee you can brew, but it’s very similar in terms of its pharmacology.

What about claims often directed at immigrant communities that khat makes them lazy?
Well some immigrant communities, particularly Somalis, who haven’t got any work, spend a lot of time in groups chewing khat. That’s a fact – just like a lot of young, unemployed people in the white British community drink alcohol while watching TV or in bars. That’s not a reason for banning the drug; it’s a reason for doing something about their lack of activities.

Do you see this as evidence that there’s further strain between the Home Office and the ACMD?
It's outrageous. I mean, the ACMD made very nice reports that gave a very detailed critique of the harms, said they’re not very harmful and also gave lots of useful ways of dealing with it. If people are concerned about the problem of a group of young Somalis chewing khat as they are today, then there are other ways of dealing with it. You don’t have to criminalise them – that will certainly just alienate them. And it’s quite paradoxical: on the same day that they’re saying "let’s reduce stop and search" they're saying "let’s go and start searching Somalis for having khat in their mouths". It’s a completely illogical approach.

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Why is the Advisory Council even there if it isn't being used?
It’s hardly clear to me at all. I know from when I was working on the ACMD that there was pressure from the USA for the last seven years to ban khat. We’ve resisted it – the current ACMD resisted it – but the government wants it to go on. It’s part of the government wanting to be good to the US, who've wanted to ban it for a long time. Banning drugs is what Home Secretaries do. It’s how they get their kicks, I suppose.

I guess they can't take drugs themselves. Have you ever tried khat yourself?
Yeah, I’ve chewed it. It’s quite bitter and not very pleasant, but I haven’t chewed it for long enough to get an effect. I think you’ve got to chew quite a few leaves to get an effect.

Which is more dangerous, khat or cats?
[Laughs]. Well if you get scratched by a cat then the cat can be a lot more dangerous, yes.

Fantastic. Anything else you wanted to say?
This is another example of the government making its mind up and wanting to control another drug to show it’s hard on drugs. It’s political posturing; they don’t care about the evidence and they will simply do it because they want to. It’s another nail in the coffin of the credibility of scientific advisory councils. I mean, if I was on the ACMD now I’d be feeling very, very hurt that all the good advice on how to reduce the harms of khat were ignored, simply to make a political point.

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Thank you very much.

Follow Matt on Twitter: (@Matt_A_Shea)

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