Possessing khat, a plant used as a stimulant by Somali and other communities, has been made illegal in the UK.
The plant khat is now banned as a class C drug despite advice from the UK government’s official advisers that it should not be classified.
The ban came into force at midnight on June 24th, despite fears the move will criminalise communities from the Horn of Africa.
Police have been told to take a ‘softly softly’ approach to the new law, with users given a warning for a first offence, a £60 fine for a second and only facing possible jail time for a third offence.
“Our message is very much that the best result for us will be if don’t arrest anyone,” Detective Superintendent Simon Rose told the London Evening Standard.
The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) guidance said: “It is important that officers… retain their operational discretion; taking into account that khat has historically not been a controlled drug and was part of the culture for certain communities linked to the Horn of Africa.”
The ban comes after members of Cardiff’s Somali community previously called for khat to be outlawed while others say it does not have a negative effect. Some opponents to the ban say alcohol has a wider effect on people.
However, Nasir Adam, a community regeneration officer in Cardiff, said he expected the majority of the city’s Somali community would welcome the ban, saying excessive use has an effect on people’s mental health and has caused the break-up of families.
National policing lead for drugs, Chief Constable Andy Bliss, said the police were working with healthcare providers and community leaders to ensure people are aware of the change in law and that there was support available to them. In Bristol, almost 30 businesses previously selling khat say they may have to close as a result of the ban.
Danny Kushlick, director of Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a charitable think tank campaigning for the legal regulation of drugs, said it was unfair that khat was being banned whereas alcohol if used in excess.
“Yet again the government has ignored the advice of its experts and prohibited another drug,” he said.
In a written statement in 2013, UK Home Secretary Theresa May said despite the recommendation of the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) not to ban khat, the body acknowledged that there was an absence of robust evidence in a number of areas. She said the whole of northern Europe, most recently the Netherlands, and the majority of other EU member states have banned khat, as well as most of the G8 countries including Canada and the USA.
Mrs May said failure to take action in the UK would place the country at serious risk of becoming a single hub for the illegal onward trafficking of khat to countries where it is banned.
The ban has been criticised by a wide variety of drug experts for having no evidential backing.
The Home Office’s own report from 2011 found there was “a general lack of robust evidence on the link between khat use and social harms”. Reports of harm to the Somali community were based on “often contradictory anecdotal statements”.
Legislation against the drug in Europe and north Africa “had little success in curbing demand and has taken place with little consideration of evidence”, it found.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) also accepted khat is not a “seriously addictive drug”. And Theresa May’s own drug advisers – the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) – recommended against prohibition.
“In summary, the evidence shows that khat has no direct causal link to adverse medical effects,” its report found.
Experts are concerned that the ban on the drug might push Somalis, Kenyans and other user communities into criminal circles. Others believe it may push users toward other illegal drugs like amphetamine. The required amount of khat needed for someone to get high is physically large, so users may be tempted toward narcotics which can be more easily concealed.
There are also concerns about the economic effect of the ban on southern economies. In 2013, the value of khat exported from Kenya to the UK alone was over £15.4m per year.
At various times in recent years, khat has been Ethiopia’s second most lucrative export product after coffee. In 2012-13, khat export revenues for Ethiopia were estimated at £160.1m.
“Increasingly the world is looking toward drug policies that minimise harm to people who use drugs as well as producer and transit countries,” said David Bewley-Taylor, director of the Global Drug Policy Observatory.
“However, this new law is pulling a page from an outdated playbook. Even worse, it passes on the greatest costs to low-income producer countries when official experts found the substance does not pose a serious threat.”