UK bans “herbal stimulant” khat

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Decision to stop turning a blind eye to usage could “risk livelihoods” of thousands of Kenyans, according to traders.

A khat vendor in Yemen (Picture: Raphaël Fauveau / Flickr)

The UK Government’s decision to ban the herbal stimulant khat will put the livelihoods of thousands of Kenyans risk, according to traders.

In a decision announced on July 3rd, the British government has decided to ban the import and use of khat, after years of turning a blind eye to the herbal stimulant.

Khat is used by 90,000 members of east African and Yemeni communities in the UK, mainly Somalis. It is a flowering evergreen shrub native to East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The plant (Catha edulis) contains two alkaloids, cathinone and cathine, which act as stimulants. Users chew the green khat leaves, keeping a ball of partially chewed leaves against the inside of their cheek. The dried leaves can also be used in this way, though they have less potency. Some khat users also smoke the drug, make it into tea or sprinkle it on food.

Use of khat has been a tradition for centuries throughout Somalia, Yemen and Ethiopia, where khat cafes (mafrishes) are often found. It has long had social, cultural and religious uses. In Sufi mosques in Somalia, for example, worshippers chew while chanting and singing.

In Western Europe, there are concerns that the sale of khat is used to fund terrorism.In 2012, the Huffington Post UK reported that every aspect of khat, from its cultivation to the mafrishes where it’s sold and chewed, supports the al-Shabaab terrorist group in Somalia.

The UK ban on khat was initiated in part to prevent the country from becoming a centre for smuggling khat to other countries where the drug has long been illegal.

“Failure to take decisive action and change the U.K.’s legislative position on khat would place the U.K. at a serious risk of becoming a single, regional hub for the illegal onward trafficking,” British Home Secretary Theresa May said in a statement.

“The decision to bring khat under control is finely balanced and takes into account the expert scientific advice and these broader concerns,” she added.

In 2012, close to 50 tonnes of khat were imported to Britain.

But not everyone agrees with the UK ban . “Prohibition is the most foolish possible response,” Ian Dunt said on Politics.co.uk. “All the data on drug use shows that a ban does not eliminate demand, it merely forces the product underground.”

Mrs May went against the advice of her government’s own Advisory Council on the Misues of Drugs (ACMD). A comprehensive review in January found “no direct link to adverse medical effects” and recommended that khat “should not be controlled”. However, the Home Office decision does bring Britain into line with most other western countries. In Canada, the United States and most of Europe, khat is a controlled substance, often placed in the same category as cocaine.

Kenya’s khat (also known as miraa) traders once exported about 20 tons of the crop to the Netherlands each week, before that country joined several other European neighbours, including France and Germany, in banning it.

Now Kenyan farmers say the ban will have a significant adverse impact on their businesses and the nation’s economy. The plant, which is grown in Kenya’s cooler central regions for export outside the continent and to Somalia, is very lucrative – a £18m industry employing hundreds of thousands of people, from growers and pickers to transporters, brokers, exporters, wholesalers and retailers. According to Kipkorir Menjo, director of the Kenya Farmers Association, the ban threatens the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people. Kenyan politicians and khat traders are calling on the government to initiate talks with British officials to reverse the ban and save the multi-million dollar sector from collapsing.

“It is a devastating blow to the lives and to the economy of Kenyan growers. If the trade stops, everything stops,” according to Kimathi Munjuri of the Nyambene Traders’ Association.

The head of the Global Miraa Industry Dealers Network, Jephat Muroko, calls the ban political. “To me it’s a pure politics, and not only politics but also oppressive to the miraa industry traders,” he said. “I think it’s part of the consequences,” he added, referring to Kenya’s election of President Uhuru Kenyatta, who faces trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of crimes against humanity. “But I wonder about our government, why it’s quiet about this thing.”

The battle is being waged inside Kenya too; the National Authority for the Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse is lobbying the government to have khat classified as an illegal drug.

Back in Britain, there has been an angry response from members of Bristol’s Somali community and the MP for Bristol West, Stephen Williams has said the government’s decision to ban khat is a “waste of time and money”.

Mr Williams said: “As a Liberal Democrat I have always supported a science-led approach to drugs and as such I cannot support the move to ban khat.

“The Government’s own experts reviewed khat and concluded that it should not be criminalised. I do not advocate the use of khat, which has been known to have negative side effects, but criminalising its users is a waste of time and money for the government and our police.

“I will now work with my Lib Dem colleagues to oppose this move and hope to meet with the Home Secretary to personally put the case that this is a poorly thought policy which will harm, rather than help, many of my constituents in Bristol, especially Somalis.”

The issue has, however, divided communities where the use of khat is widespread, with anti-khat campaigners having pushed hard for a complete ban.

According to The Times, London it is frequently misused; in the psychiatric wards in Hargeisa, northern Somalia, many of the patients suffer from severe khat dependency, which doctors have linked to pyschosis and schizophrenia.

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