Theresa May’s move to ban the herbal stimulant ‘khat’ flies in the face of common sense and has worrying implications.
Theresa May has gone against the advice of experts from the government’s own drugs Advisory Council (the ACMD) and on Wednesday announced plans to ban the herbal stimulant ‘khat’, which will soon be treated as a class C drug in the UK. Khat(or Qat) is a leaf that when chewed gives the user a buzz likened to the feeling of drinking numerous cups of coffee. A number of worrying issues arise in relation to this new legislation.
The first issue at hand is the government’s constant disdain for the advice it receives regarding drug legislation. The ACMD was set up to provide expert advice to legislators, so that informed decisions could be made regarding drug laws.
In a report published in January, the ACMD said khat should remain a legal substance stating that there was ‘insufficient evidence’ that the drug causes health problems. However the Home Secretary has ignored this advice and has set the wheels in motion to make the drug illegal.
Since 2010 the Conservative led government has ignored fact-based advice regarding drug legislation on numerous occasions. When the ACMD advised that cannabis should remain a Class C substance, the government’s response was to reclassify it to Class B. A similar suggestion that Psilocybin (Magic) Mushrooms should also not be reclassified was also ignored. When the council suggested lowering the category of MDMA and also that more research should be conducted into Mephedrone before it is further criminalised, the government’s response was again to show contempt. Ecstasy was kept a Class A substance and Mephedrone was elevated to a Class B, before any extensive research was carried out.
This government prides itself on its credentials for clawing back the intrusive state it inherited from the last Labour government. However this latest disdain for the recommendations of the ACMD has an aura of nanny-statism and reeks of a ‘the government knows best’ attitude.
One of the reasons put forward by those wishing to make khat illegal is that trading of the drug has been dubiously linked to organised terrorism in the Horn of Africa. This line of reasoning has been ridiculed by the ACMD and history tells us that when something is criminalised, only organised criminals prosper under the legislation – see Al Capone during alcohol prohibition in the US, Pablo Escobar in Columbia during the failed ‘war on drugs’ and contemporary cartels that run amok in Mexico. This is the second problem with May’s actions; by making the drug illegal she is driving out legitimate businesses trading within the law, and instead creating an environment where only illegal dealers benefit with the added bonus of enhanced profits as the price of khat is set to rise.
In Britain the plant is chewed by around 90,000 people and the majority of its users are people with roots in East Africa – Ethiopians, Kenyans, Yemenis and most predominantly Somalis. The third underlying issue with the plans to ban khat is that the policy will disproportionately affect ethnic minorities and turn thousands of people into criminals overnight for using something that has been a staple part of their culture for hundreds of years.
A ban on khat would inflame already existing tensions between the ethnic diaspora and the police, as it will inevitably lead to more stop and searches of ethnic minorities. Ironically, earlier this week the Home Secretary boldly lamented current stop and search laws and called for an overhaul of police powers citing that they have been disproportionately used against black and minorities. However this is a case of giving with one hand and taking with the other as May happily enacts legislation that will target ethnic peoples. Banning khat will not have the intended purpose of stopping people from using the drug; it will just make innocent users criminals.
Making a herbal stimulant that is used by less than 0.2% of the population illegal appears on the surface to be no big deal. However, there are various reasons to be concerned. This is further evidence of the government displaying their contempt for fact-based evidence from the ACMD questioning the point of the council’s existence. Coinciding with this is an embracement of nanny statism, something the Conservatives have been happy to warn against in opposition. Finally the government is showing a worrying willingness to target an ethnic minority using very contestable reasoning.
The policy will only prove to do more harm than good: crazy khat, indeed!