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Ban on Herbal Stimulant Khat Could Cause Ripples Across UK

In a move that has stunned liberals and defied the recommendation of the British government’s own advisory council, khat is now illegal.

by Max Cherney
Jun 24 2014, 10:25pm

Image via VICE News

The controversial African stimulant called khat is now illegal in the United Kingdom, and the negative consequences of the ban will likely ripple through immigrant communities across the country.

In a move that has stunned liberals and defied the recommendation of the British government’s own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, khat is, as of Tuesday, a class C drug in the UK, meaning possession and distribution of the African plant is illegal.

Owning khat now carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison, and production or distribution is subject to up to a prison sentence of 14 years.

The ban on khat is not going to have positive results, according to Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

“When you shift to a market that’s illegal, what ends up happening is more violence, since disputes tend to be resolved that way instead of through the legal system,” Nadelmann told VICE News.

VICE News followed the trail of khat from the farms of central Kenya to the suburbs of west London. Watch the report here.

Also, when narcotics are banned, traffickers typically then begin to ship or produce more potent varieties of a given substance. Nadelmann cited infamous bootlegger Al Capone, who preferred higher proof spirits — which often bring more of a health risk. Nadelmann also pointed out the resulting heroin trade when opium was banned in the US.

“Communities have no opportunities to develop the norms and alternatives,” he said.

Khat is one of the many street names for the shrub catha edulis, which is native to the Horn of Africa and widely consumed there and in the Middle East in social situations.

When chewed, fresh khat acts as a stimulant, releasing the psychoactive drug called cathinone into the bloodstream — reportedly generating feelings of euphoria and keeping users awake. Cathinone is an amphetamine.

Banning the substance is also going to change the fabric of Somali and other immigrant communities in the UK, where chewing the plant socially is a time-honored pastime.

It’s so ingrained in the culture that marfishes, basically khat cafes, have cropped up across the country — informal spaces that may now disappear, said Danny Kushlick, head of external affairs for the Transform Drug Policy Foundation.

The British government’s evidently disagrees. As spelled out by Prime Minister David Cameron on Hiiraan Online, the government believes that banning khat will actually help eliminate the societal degradation caused by people staying up all night chewing.

Cameron’s thinking pivots around a cornerstone Conservative principle “that people who work hard should be able to reach there potential.” Chewing khat, he reasons, prevents British citizens from doing so.

British Liberals are taking issue with Cameron’s position.

“When many countries agree on a policy, and that becomes the orthodoxy, anyone who doesn’t follow the consensus become pariahs,” Kushlick said, adding that he sees the khat ban as bowing to international pressure.

With khat already outlawed in many European countries, Canada, and the US, the international community can exert joint pressure on the UK to ban the substance, in part to attempt to curtail trafficking hubs that ultimately wind up sending more product elsewhere. Since khat is illegal in the US, it's possible that the "special relationship" between the British and Americans played an important role in the ban.

“Because the UK is part of the global community, there is the potential to be embarrassingly seen as a trafficking hub,” Kushlick said.

The UK ban is also going to affect transnational trafficking to other countries such as the US, where it is a controlled substance, and production and jobs in African countries such as Kenya, which are major suppliers to the UK market.

Other Liberals, such as Julian Huppert, say that not only will banning the substance create a black market for organized crime to operate, as he wrote in a Guardian op-ed, but it will cost the government roughly $250 million to enforce terrorist recruitment in Kenya.