The UK government has decided today to ban the herbal stimulant khat, despite the advice of its own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. The Home Secretary, Teresa May has said that the risks of using the substance have been underestimated and it is now illegal and will be treated as a Class C drug, as are ketamine and anabolic steroids. However, back in January, the ACMD said that was ‘insufficient evidence’ to presume the drug caused health problems, and in their opinion, it should remain a legal substance.
Khat is already banned in several countries, including the US, Canada and most of Europe, and the Netherlands has recently imposed a ban on the substance, but it is traditionally widely used in countries such as Somalia, the Yemen and Ethiopia.
The substance is grown in the Horn of Africa and in the Arabian Peninsula, where the leaves and the shoots are cultivated to produce the stimulant cathinone, a substance that has been linked to serious and organised crime.
However, the ACMD say that the effects of using khat produce a “mild stimulant effect much less potent than stimulant drugs, such as amphetamine”, and the ACMD chairman, Professor Les Iversen said the review “found insufficient evidence of either health or societal harms caused by the use of khat to justify its control in the UK”. He added: “We have listened to concerns of the community and recommend local authorities and the police address these through continued engagement.”
But Somali groups who reside within the UK disagree, and say that members who use khat cause “significant social problems” and it can lead to medical problems and even family breakdowns. Campaigners against the use of khat also stress that the substance can also trigger bouts of tiredness, depression, shaking and bad dreams, when people are withdrawing from the drug.
Khat is a relatively inexpensive drug to buy, with bundles costing between £3 to £6 each, and users chewing one or two bundles for up to six hours at a time. It is thought that around 2,500 tonnes of khat was imported into the UK in 2011/12, which brought in £2.8m of tax revenues, according to the ACMD.
It is thought that the ACMD would prefer a system of education regarding the use of khat, rather than an outright ban of the drug, with emphasis on prevention, and the need for local authorities and police commissioners to engage with communities “to address any concerns of khat use causing social harm”.
But another reason that the drug was reclassified was that there were real fears that the UK could have been used as a transit route for khat to be transported into other European countries. Mrs May said: “Failure to take decisive action and change the UK’s legislative position on khat would place the UK at a serious risk of becoming a single, regional hub for the illegal onward trafficking.”
However, a more sensible approach to the drug was offered by Martin Barnes, from the charity Drugscope: “A more proportionate alternative to banning khat and criminalising its use would have been an import ban or making it a supply offence only as applies, for example, to controlled anabolic steroids.”
As a final word on the subject, the Home Office said the ban was intended to “protect vulnerable members of our communities” and would be brought in at the “earliest possible opportunity”.