When the UK government announced last week that it would be banning khat – a mild herbal stimulant chewed in the UK predominantly by Somali, Ethiopian and Yemeni diaspora – it did not come as a great surprise to those who have been following the process.
While the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) review of khat earlier this year insisted that the situation did not call for prohibition, the months of silence from the government led many to suspect Home Secretary Theresa May and the Home Office would enact a ban anyway.
If anything, it is perhaps surprising that the UK held out as long as it did. The momentum towards criminalising the substance in Europe and North America has been increasing ever since two of its active compounds – cathine and cathinone – were added to the UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances in 1988. While this move was not intended to encourage governments to ban khat itself, but rather prevent possible trade in the isolated chemicals, a number of countries decided to control khat. In the case of Scandinavian countries and the US, this was an overzealous case of ensuring compliance with the convention rather than a targeted measure against a growing risk.
The fact that the UK was something of an anomaly was often used to justify the need for a ban – ‘if it is banned in so many other countries, it must be bad’ – but the irony is that the two countries (the UK and the Netherlands) that held out for the longest against prohibition were the only ones that had conducted extensive research as part of the decision-making process.
However, illegality breeds illegality, and with susceptible ‘tough on drugs and crime’ governments in place, both countries have now succumbed to the momentum despite reviews suggesting a ban would be disproportionate. The decision will have repercussions in the UK, Europe and in Kenya.
The UK’s decision to ban khat is unlikely to act as much of a deterrent to its continued import, especially given that there is still a lively trade in khat in US states with far more draconian punishments for its import than those proposed in the UK.
The UK ban will however add value to the commodity, which will encourage many to send a suitcase or three of khat from Kenya to the UK, as happens to the US. Less khat will come in overall, many retailers will lose a legitimate livelihood, and casual weekend chewers may well desist. But the quodhadhi (habitual khat chewers) will still find their bundles.
In this way, problematic consumers will still be problematic consumers, only now criminalised. This also comes with the added danger that the substance will prove far more divisive for Somalis than when it was legal, as those who continue chewing face not just moral reproach from others in the community, but criminal proceedings if reported to the police. Furthermore, Somali men in particular are likely to be subject to police stop and search should effort be put into curbing its use.
Indeed, a key factor will be how well policed the khat trade will be. As a ‘Class C’ substance, khat is likely to be low priority, and with austerity biting hard at the police and border control, it is hard to see much sustained effort being applied once some initial arrests have been made. Meanwhile, what is certain is that the UK will lose the £2.8 million ($4.2 million) or so khat raises in revenue each year.
As regards the rest of Europe and North America, the decision is likely to see the famous ‘balloon effect’ in action, whereby when one smuggling route is shut off, another one opens up. Informal trade networks from Kenya to Europe are flexible and fluid enough that the problem will most likely be displaced rather than resolved.
In Kenya – which supplies 50 of the 56 tonnes of khat a week that reaches the UK – there is already much discussion as to what the UK ban will mean for farmers and traders. For the Nyambene Hills – where most of the crop is grown – the decision is assuredly momentous, and will affect many farmers, especially those whose farms specifically feed the international market. Khat has been a boon for many farmers and traders in East Africa, sustaining thousands of livelihoods in far more secure a fashion than more internationally ‘respectable’ drug crops such as coffee.
One possibility is that much of the 50 tonnes that previously reached the UK will find its way onto the national market instead. UK khat is quite low quality, and if diverted locally might give competition to a variety called mugoka which is grown elsewhere in the country and which has become popular due to its low cost. However, overall, the khat industry will inevitably be dealt a serious blow by the UK’s decision.
There is a chance the UK ban will lead to greater questioning of khat’s legality in Kenya itself, and it is worth noting that Kenya’s National Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA) organisation has occasionally queried its legality in the past. However, khat’s economic value as a commodity has always trumped calls for a ban in post-colonial Kenya, and the substance is so ingrained into livelihoods and culture that the Kenyan government recognises a ban would meet much opposition.
Whether the Kenyan government becomes embroiled in discussions with the British not to ban khat is another matter. Kenya’s government has generally taken a hands-off approach to khat, perhaps concerned for its international reputation. However, it should certainly do all it can to support farmers who might lose their livelihoods as a result of the ban, and should perhaps engage the UK’s Department for International Development to help fund mitigating projects.
Exactly what will happen as a result of the policy remains to be seen. But one consequence is clear: that an opportunity to move beyond the non-solution of prohibiting such substances has been missed. The time was ripe to consider more regulatory approaches that could sustain khat’s positive impacts on livelihoods and sociality, while mitigating its negative ones.
The UK’s Revenue and Customs agency had put much energy into investigating and monitoring the trade, and increased oversight of this legal trade could have more easily helped prevent onward trade to countries where it is illegal, apparently the key concern for the Home Secretary. The tax revenue earned from khat could also have been directed at community projects designed to tackle wider problems faced by Somalis, Ethiopians and others in the UK. Meanwhile licensing could have curbed underage chewing and other negative aspects of consumption.
Through regulation khat’s associated problems could have been addressed most seriously. Instead, the UK government is poised to pass the commodity to the smugglers.
When the British previously tried to control khat in Kenya under colonialism, one variety of khat came to be known as giza, the Swahili word for ‘darkness’, in reference to the dark places in which it came to be sold. Thanks to the UK’s ban, it seems that it is into this darkness that the UK khat trade is now heading.
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