22 Jan 2013

Khat: a legal high, but should it be banned?

Africa Correspondent

Khat, a stimulant drug, is chewed by around 90,000 people in the east African and Yemeni communities in the UK. But now the Home Office is considering banning the substance. Jamal Osman finds out why.

In an industrial estate in Southall, west London, thousands of boxes full of khat are delivered every week. The drug begins its journey from the hills of Kenya and arrives in the UK four times a week. It then makes its way to the depot, where dealers buy the herbal high to supply customers across the UK. The fresh leaves are chewed to achieve a state of mild euphoria. It has a stimulant effect similar to that of amphetamines.

Britain is the only country in the west where the product remains legal. The khat business generates over £400m in revenue for the British economy, and the chancellor of the exchequer also picks up a tidy sum in VAT revenue.

Around 90,000 people from the east African and Yemeni communities in the UK use it, especially the Somali community. But a Home Office report, which will be published on Wednesday, is to recommend regulating the product, and a ban is expected to follow later.

Not far from the depot in Southall lies Number 15, the best-known khat house in the country. Traditionally known as marfash, the khat house is open from midday till the early morning hours. Men sit around chewing the green leaf.

A little buzz

Mahdi Jama, a regular chewer in the marfash, cannot understand why anyone would bother people like him as the plant has been used for centuries by his community.

“It’s like vegetable but it gives a little bit buzz,” he said.

Britain is the only country in the west where khat is still legal (Getty)

“It’s like saying we’ll ban alcohol because there are people who are alcoholic.”

However, anti-khat campaigners say it “is destroying the whole community”, causing health problems, unemployment and family breakdown. In particular, they are concerned about the spread of khat use among the younger generation, where the attitude is: “If it’s legal, it must be safe to consume it.”

Led by Abukar Awale, a former addict himself, the activists feel they are ever closer to achieving their objectives. It has been a long journey, however, and they have been trying to convince successive governments to listen.

It’s like saying we’ll ban alcohol because there are people who are alcoholic. Mahdi Jama, khat user

The campaign started seven years ago with weekly visits to local khat houses. Once a week, the activists distribute leaflets with information about the harmful effects of the drug. Most people support them, but occasionally they get into arguments with khat-chewers who do not welcome their message. To reach more people, Abukar Awale started his own television show: Check Before You Chew. It is a phone-in programme where the viewers share their experience of khat use on one of the Somali satellite stations.

They then started attending local government meetings to influence key decision makers. As a result, some local authorities with a sizeable Somali population, such as Hillingdon, called for the regulation of khat to “give local authorities, the police and government agencies greater powers to control its importation, sale and use”.

Ban on khat

During the last election, the activists met politicians, offering them community votes. In return, they wanted their support for the ban on khat. Some politicians accepted the offer and supported the mission. Sayeeda Warsi, minister for faith and communities, announced that “a future Conservative government would legislate to make khat a classified drug.”

Is it time for a ban on khat? (Getty)

But the activists kept the pressure on the authorities. Playing the discrimination card, they accused the government of not taking the issue seriously since “it was not affecting real Brits”.

In 2010, when “meow-meow” – or mephedrone – was banned following the deaths of a number of young people in the UK, the anti-khat campaigners jumped on the bandwagon. They wanted to exploit the links between khat and mephedrone. Mephedrone is a synthetic substance based on the cathinone compounds found in the khat plant. They argued that since khat is widely available in the UK, people will find ways of producing meow-meow.

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.

And last month, those pushing for a ban organised a demonstration outside Downing Street: pray for a ban. It was about praying to a superior power, God, who could simply tell David Cameron to ban khat. If the report calls for tougher control on khat, the activists will believe their prayers have been partially answered.

But Abukar Awale and his friends will not accept anything other than an all-out ban.

“We will challenge any other decision,” he said.

“For the government, it’s not about how harmful this product is, it’s who is using it – and that is discrimination. Our lawyers have been preparing for this, and we will take legal action within the next three months.”

Back in the khat house in Southall, the message from the chewers is defiant. They say they “are just going to carry on chewing what ever happens”.