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The UK khat ban: ‘protecting vulnerable communities’?


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From 24 June 2014 the production, possession, supply and import or export of the herbal stimulant (Catha edulis) khat will be illegal in the UK. This follows a decision by the Coalition government in July 2013 to control khat as a Class C drug under the misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

This is not the first British ban on the trade and use of khat. In the mid-twentieth century the British banned khat in some of their colonies in the heartland of khat production and consumption. This experience of prohibition in East Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula provides lessons for today’s policy makers.

In the UK khat is consumed mostly within communities from the khat heartland. Most khat in the UK is imported from Kenya and carried on chartered flights into Heathrow. Chewing khat releases the active ingredients cathine and cathinone to produce a mild stimulant effect. It is consumed at home, community events and khat cafes. Traditionally khat was chewed as an aid to religious contemplation and as a medicine. Consumers in the UK today chew khat as recreation and cite it as a cultural practice linking them to their country of origin.

The government’s decision to ban khat was made despite the conclusion of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) that ‘the evidence of harms associated with the use of khat is insufficient to justify control and it would be inappropriate and disproportionate.’ Home Secretary Theresa May acknowledged this 'reasonable conclusion' but argued 'that we risk underestimating the actual harms of khat in our communities owing to the limitations of the evidence base available to the ACMD.’ In banning khat, the government appears to have given greater weight to unproven fears, promoted by certain sections of the media and anti-khat campaigners, that khat causes social and medical harms.

The historians David Anderson and Neil Carrier have examined the British khat ban in Kenya, 1945-1956. British officials, with some local support, campaigned for the prohibition of khat ostensibly to protect ‘vulnerable communities’. Ignoring the views of most Africans, officials pursued a ‘racialized’ khat policy, singling out the minority Somali community as especially susceptible to the harms of khat, which they argued made Somalis indolent and troublesome, and so unproductive and unreliable colonial subjects. The ban was supported by thinly-evidenced medical reports, consisting of anecdotes and couched in the vocabulary of ‘drugs’ and ‘addicts’.

The elders of Meru county, who were benefiting from the growing export market for khat, were particularly opposed to the prohibition. The ban was evaded and did much to create and stimulate an illicit market. Ironically, growing official recognition of the value of the khat trade and the complete failure of the ban, led to its abandonment. Today, khat is also valuable to the UK economy; in 2012/13 UK khat imports worth £12.4 million contributed £2.5 million to HMRC.

Peer Gatter, political scientist and former adviser to the Yemen government, has looked at the British khat ban in Aden, 1957-1958. As in Kenya there was a small group of local anti-khat campaigners. However, officials were particularly concerned about the outflow of currency to Ethiopia and the Imamate of Yemen and that the burgeoning trade only benefited a few importers and retailers at the expense of many consumers. The ban was not a success. People objected to searches as an indignity while the police and the justice system were over-burdened by khat cases. There were street demonstrations and a state of emergency had to be declared. Khat retailers and consumers simply relocated to unsupervised markets on roadways and the desert fringes of the colony. An estimated 5,000 people visited these khat hideaways on weekdays and as many as 18,000 on Sundays.

Adeni women called for the revocation of the prohibition, arguing that despite the ban their husbands consumed as much khat as ever, spent more of the household budget on the inflated price of illicit khat and neglected their family duties. Even previous advocates called for the ban’s revocation and so the government agreed to a review. The Report of the Qat Commission of Inquiry (1958) concluded that ‘the evils and grievances which have resulted from the ban…outweigh what benefits the ban has achieved.’ The Report also argued that the lack of sanitary provision at such illicit khat gatherings posed a serious health risk.

The UK khat ban shares similarities with the prohibitions in colonial Kenya and Aden. The Coalition government appears particularly anxious to satisfy demands for the prohibition from sections of the UK Somali community, including wives, mothers and community representatives. Prior to the 2010 General Election Baroness Warsi and Chris Grayling, then Shadow Home Secretary, pledged to ban khat. In 2009 Baroness Warsi argued in The Guardian that not to ban khat was ‘almost inverse racism’, adding that politicians were ‘almost frightened to act because it concerned minority communities, even though many people, especially women, from within those communities were calling for action.’ In Parliament, the Coalition government has stressed that the ban is intended to help tackle family breakdown, unemployment and lack of integration. They have also argued that the khat ban is part of their broader strategy to increase ethnic minority access to employment.  However, the ACMD found no evidence that khat caused socio-economic deprivation in these communities and the government’s research into social perceptions of khat has not shown majority support for such a prohibition among khat-consuming communities.

Critics in the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) have argued that there is the risk that prohibition could drive the trade underground and force consumers to turn to illicit and more deleterious alternative such as synthetic cathinones. The current UK ban may also echo the social unrest caused by previous prohibitions, particularly in Aden. The ACMD and HASC are concerned that a prohibition could worsen relations between user communities and the police, exacerbating feelings of discrimination among marginalised groups, who are already disproportionately targeted by police attempts to combat drugs offences. The Shadow Home Affairs Minister, Diana Johnson, has pointed out that this might undermine the government’s anti- radicalisation strategy Prevent.

Like British attempts to prohibit khat in Kenya and Aden, the UK ban today is driven by unproven fears of the social and medical harms associated with its consumption and has been implemented without an investigation into the views of all communities concerned. It is far from guaranteed to succeed and risks creating new unregulated markets and criminal networks funded by the consumption of illicit khat or more damaging alternatives. The government could adopt a permit system of khat import and retail such as that in Victoria State, Australia. This might avoid the failures and unintended consequences that drove the British authorities in Kenya and Aden to end prohibition and licence the trade and consumption of khat. Crucially, it might also avoid alienating already marginalised ethnic communities and provide government with the opportunity to collect much needed data on khat markets vital for evidence-based policy.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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