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  • Kier Heath-Griffiths

Britain’s Puritanical Drugs Policy and the Horn of Africa

Photograph: Flickr, A. Davey

In 2014 the UK government, under guidance from Theresa May, moved to incorporate Khat into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Khat, a niche drug in the UK, used primarily by the Horn of Africa diaspora, has never been a prominent feature of British discourse. The method of consumption, chewing the leaf of Khat for hours on end has never found favour with drug consumers outside of the cultural practices of the diaspora. Because of this, the criminalization process did not produce any considerable outcry. This is despite the glaring lack of social or medical evidence supporting the prohibition for Khat. To the contrary, both of the two reviews by the government’s own advisory panels found that there was not sufficient evidence of harm to support the ban.

The prohibition of Khat then acts as another depressing testament to the regressive drugs policy intertwined with the politics of prejudice that incorporates reactionary social conservatism with international prohibition interests. There are around 110,000 members of the Somali diaspora alone in the UK. Of one survey of a London community sample 78%, of respondents had used Khat in their lifetime, 86% of whom had used it in the past week, which demonstrates the mnemonic importance of Khat to retaining Somali tradition in the diaspora. The long term impacts of criminalizing the cultural practices of such a huge number of an already economically marginalised group remains to be seen. Precedent in other prohibitionist nations such as the United States suggests that the ban will not end consumption, but rather lead to a ballooning in price, and so incentivise criminality. What is equally distressing is the evidence of the negative effect of the ban on growing communities in the Horn of Africa.

Despite the cultural prevalence of Khat in Islamic communities in the Horn, 90% of UK Khat imports originates in Kenya. In 2013 the value of Khat imported into the UK was taxed at £15.4 million. This was not an insignificant portion of Kenyan GDP as a whole, and was the staple crop lifeblood of the agricultural region of Merru. As such the UK ban has devastated the region’s economy. Those involved in the legitimate Mirra trade (Khat’s Kenyan moniker), have seen prices plummet. The local market in Kenya and Somalia cannot offset Somaliome lost by the collapse of British demand. The effect is so pronounced that the Kenyan government, the Merru regional government and even Khat farmers themselves have gone through legal avenues to finance a lawsuit against the British government ban, appealing to the UN convention on human rights prohibiting discrimination against ethnic customs.

What little public information that existed Khat prior to the ban was saturated with gross misrepresentations of the harms of consumption and of the nature of the international trade. Tabloid accounts cited Khat as a source of primary funding Al Shababab and claimed that the UK was fast becoming an international hub for export. This argument was in fact cited in the explanatory circular that accompanied the criminalization amendment. However these claims about the trade are linked to tentative evidence at best.

The Al Shabab link is difficult to disprove, but there is an absence of evidential support for its actuality. Khat is deemed Haram by the group and they have been known to behead users. Furthermore, the government advisory report noted that “ACMD has not been provided with any evidence of Al Shabab or any other terrorist group‘s involvement in the export or sale of Khat”. While it is not inconceivable that Al Shabab, like the Taliban in growing of opium, could exploit Khat for financial gain despite religious objections, there is yet to be sufficient evidence to ground this theory in reality. The other significant element of concern about the international trade, that the UK becoming a transit hub for Khat smuggling, is similarly unsubstantiated, and can be disproved with analysis. Khat has been illegal in most European nations for some time. However, despite the illegality creating a profit incentive for smuggling, the volume of imported Khat decreased from 2,800 tonnes in 2004/5 to 2,560 tonnes in 2011/12. This is despite an 18% growth in for the diaspora populations in the same period which therefore evidences a decrease in overall demand for Khat, and undermines the claim that the UK is a trafficking hub.

Clearly then, the prohibition campaign has been facilitated by the proliferation of malicious misinformation of the harms of trade and consumption of Khat. Whether Theresa May fully subscribes to the warped logic espoused to justify these prohibitionist efforts, or whether there are other factors at play is uncertain. What can be said with conviction though, is that the regressive stance taken by the UK government threatens to criminalize some of the UK’s most marginalised communities; and in turn destroy the legitimate livelihoods of African farmers and traders. Unfortunately, with the unrepentantly archaic 2016 Psychoactive Substances Bill reaching Royal Assent, it seems apparent that the Tory government is determined to foster the politics of reaction and fervour over reasoned harm based analysis.

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