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Wednesday, July 03, 2013 

Khat fight; evidence loses.

Yesterday, the home secretary Theresa May did something both commendable and liberal.  She stood up in the Commons and made clear it is unacceptable that the police's use of stop and search is still resulting in disproportionate numbers of young black and Asian men being hassled purely for going about their daily business.  Launching a consultation after a pilot study made clear that when threatened with action, the number of searches fell without there being a corresponding rise in crime, it might just result in one of the grievances that helped spark the riots of two years ago being tackled.

There is though a unwritten rule when it comes to being a modern home secretary.  For every apparent liberalising reform you introduce, you have to then do something that makes life that little bit more miserable for one section of society.  Hence the utterly absurd, ridiculously counter-productive and flying in the face of all the evidence decision today to make khat, or qat, a Class C drug.

This is now the third time in relatively quick succession that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has seen its expert advice disregarded for entirely political reasons.  First, Labour under Gordon Brown ignored the council's report that said cannabis should remain Class C, with the panel a year later recommending the downgrading of Ecstasy, or MDMA, to Class B from A.  The head of the ACMD, Professor David Nutt, was then unceremoniously sacked by Alan Johnson after he continued to criticise the government for ignoring the council's advice.  Now with the supposedly more government friendly Professor Les Iversen at the helm, the coalition has decided it simply can't accept their view that khat is only a "mild stimulant" and its effects on the community are relatively negligible (PDF). Iversen merely says that he is "disappointed".

Theresa May for her part claimed that as some of the evidence is on the light side, it's possible the ACMD has underestimated the harm caused by khat, and so she pledges she's acting to protect "vulnerable members of the community". This is rather at odds with the coalition's economic policies, but let's take her word for it. That the ACMD had previously looked at khat in 2005 and came to the same conclusion is irrelevant, nor would it apparently make a difference if further research was commissioned.

The real reasoning behind the ban it seems is, err, that everyone else has already made it illegal. Whether the fears are substantiated or not, it seems the government has come under pressure from both the US and mainland Europe lest the UK become the main trafficking hub for the plant. Again, that khat is an extremely minority pursuit seems irrelevant, as the figures quoted in the ACMD report (2,500 tonnes imported in 2011, worth approx. £13.8m with VAT receipts of £2.8m) suggest. Normally the Tories love nothing better than sticking two fingers up at Europe, but it seems on this occasion that it's lobbying from the US that has made the difference. Considering the now wildly divergent laws that different US states have on cannabis, a drug that the ACMD believes is more harmful than khat, and that the US led war on drugs has worked so magnificently so far, a minister with more backbone would tell them where to get off. But no.

Unfortunately, as the ACMD report also sets out, in hardly any of these countries was khat subject to a harm review prior to it being made illegal (pages 57-58).  Indeed, in the Netherlands, where khat has recently been added to the same list of technically illegal but tolerated substances such as cannabis, the government there also ignored a review that found khat was relatively benign (PDF).  The report also makes clear the obvious consequences of putting khat in Class C: at the moment khat costs between £3 and £6 a bundle to the consumer.  Make it illegal though, and the cost will inevitably increase, attracting those already involved in the wider drugs trade who previously saw the market cornered by legitimate traders with low profit margins.  As Transform say, not only is the government ignoring expert advice that says the harm posed by khat is too low for it to be controlled, doing so will almost certainly make the problems there are worse.

For as Dr Alex Klein argues, there's more at work here than simply the positives and negatives of a plant that in Somali communities plays a role somewhat analogous to that of alcohol in our own.  He believes that the campaign to ban khat is led by those who see the "mafrishes", the cafes where khat is chewed, as a challenge to the authority of the mosque and Islamic organisations.  With the plant banned, and those opposed to the mafrishes likely to quickly inform the police if illegally imported khat continues to be chewed there, the potential for conflict is likely to increased rather than decrease.  Instead of regulating khat, for argument's sake similarly to alcohol, making mafrishes apply for licences, the government wants to move in one fall swoop from khat being completely legal to illegal, even if it's likely to be policed in a similar way to personal possession of cannabis now is.

The government though doesn't want to get into a debate where khat is compared to alcohol, for the reason that it's one it would almost certainly lose. As David Nutt comments, "[I]f politicians wish to argue for drug prohibitions on a moral basis, because they think it is obnoxious and dissolute to sit around getting high from leaves or intoxicated by drink, that's fine, let them make the case, and see whether parliament or the electorate have an interest in policing people's personal habits".  It's far easier to instead rely on claims of links to terrorism, just as it's also easier to ban something getting the blame for a problem rather than tackle the real root causes of why Somalis tend to be marginalised.  When the self-appointed leading campaigner against khat claims there is no such thing as a responsible user of the plant, something immediately disproved when the Independent last year visited a number of mafrishes, it's clear that evidence is still always likely to be trumped by emotion.

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