The herbal stimulant khat should not be banned in Britain, say official drugs advisers, who also dismiss suggestions that its trade funds terrorism.
There is insufficient evidence that chewing khat leads directly to either social or health problems, the advisory council on the misuse of drugs (ACMD) found.
The council acknowledged that some adverse outcomes were associated with khat use, but said this outcome was "a complex interaction" with other factors related to immigrant communities and societal issues, and found no causal link to khat use. Instead, the ACMD recommended that local authorities and police commissioners engage more with society to address these concerns.
ACMD vice-chair Dr Hew Mathewson also said the body paid "no credence" to links between the khat trade and the funding of al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based cell of the militant Islamist group al-Qaeda.
The intoxicating herb is used mainly by the Somalian, Ethopian and Yemeni communities, and by around 90,000 people in the UK. It has been banned in the United States and Canada, and parts of Europe, including a recent ban in the Netherlands.
In the UK, khat is sold in small shops and cafes in bundles worth £3 to £6 each with most users chewing around one to two bundles in an average session lasting up to six hours.
Reporter Jamal Osman spoke to people in some of London's khat-houses who agree with the ACMD's decision that khat should not be banned. "It's like vegetable but it gives a little bit buzz," said Mahdi Jama. "It's like saying we'll ban alcohol because there are people who are alcoholic."
Read more from Jamal Osman: Should khat be banned?
Others blame the drug for breaking up families, mental health problems and unemployment, and some campaigners called for a ban.
However the ACMD said there was not enough evidence for their assertions. The report said:"it is often difficult to disentangle whether khat is the source of community problems or, to some extent, its prevalence and use is symptomatic of the problems for some individuals and groups within the community."
Around 2,560 tonnes of khat worth £13.8m was imported to the UK in 2011/12, bringing in £2.8m of tax revenues, the ACMD said.
Last year, counter-terrorism officers working with their American counterparts arrested seven individuals across the UK. The group – all of them khat traders – were suspected of channelling the proceeds of an alleged smuggling enterprise to al-Qaeda-linked Islamists in Somalia.
But the ACMD dismissed rumours of links between the khat trade and terrorism.
The ACMD's recommendations:
1. The ACMD recommend that the status of khat is not changed and is not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
2. It is recommended that commissioners and directors of public health from local health boards, NHS boards, health and wellbeing boards, and health and social care boards should:
• Include khat in local needs assessments, particularly where there are population groups of relevant BME groups,
• Where khat use is found to be present in local communities, this substance should be included in local generic substance misuse education and prevention initiatives,
• Where khat use is found, the commissioning of culturally specific and tailored treatment and recovery services incorporating 'mutual aid' models of support should be considered,
• Consider dialogue and partnership working with appropriate NGO, third sector, voluntary organisations and BME communities, so holistic needs of health and social issues are met.
3. It is recommended that where concerns are expressed about social harms associated with the use of khat, local authorities and new police and crime commissioners should address them through engagement and dialogue with the local community and good inter-agency working, supported as necessary by the use of existing measures coordinated through the relevant community safety partnerships and the use of community remedy.
4.It is recommended that commissioners of public health services, as well as criminal justice system bodies and the new police and crime commissioners should include the use of khat in regular monitoring returns required from treatment and enforcement agencies and publish annual figures. This data should form the basis of future research on khat to address the concerns raised in this report.