24 Jun 2014

Going underground? Khat is now officially illegal

Africa Correspondent

Khat, the stimulant leaf chewed by Yemeni and east African communities, especially Somalis, is now illegal and is classed as a class C drug – but will that stop it being sold illegally in the UK?

At a warehouse in Southall, west London, which for years has been the centre of UK’s khat trade, businessmen came early than normal so as no to end up empty handed, writes Jamal Osman.

Hours later a lorry carrying the last shipment to arrive in Britain pulled over.

Many of them knew it was in the final hours before khat ban comes into effect. The mood was sombre.

It was all too evident on the face of Mohamud Ahmed’s, the main importer of khat . “We are feeling disappointed,” he told me. “They never considered the major impact on the community.

“Banning it, is not the solution… You are just creating underground and criminal activities which will be affected by our community.”

Losing livelihood overnight

Mohamud is not the only person who will lose his livelihood overnight. There are hundreds of traders who run khat houses across the country.

They will be losing their income too. Thousands of miles away in Kenya, farmers who rely on khat are very worried about the ban. Known locally as “miraa”, khat comes from Meru in Kenya, and thousands of farmers depend on the UK trade.

It’s one of Kenya’s main exports, worth over $100m a year. There is anger and fear at what the British ban will mean. “I will never eat, my child will never go to school when miraa stop,” one of the farmers told me.

For those who consume khat, it isn’t about losing a livelihood.

Instead, they feel their culture and social life have been denied by the British state.

Mohamed Khadar says he started chewing khat 10 years ago to help his university studies.

Since then, it has been part of his life.

‘I enjoy chewing it’

“Unfortunately, it’s not good news,” Mohamed told me as he chewed the green leaf in a cafe in Southall. “Why is the British has something to do with this (khat). I enjoy chewing it. When I chew it makes me happy. It makes me concentrate. It just calms me down.”

While khat farmers, traders and chewers are mourning the loss of the green leaf, anti-khat activists are preparing for a massive celebration.

Campaigners have been lobbying successive British governments to outlaw the product. They argue that it’s harmful product, it causes mental health, social problems like family breakdowns, unemployment and prevents integration.

However, scientists who advise government on dangerous drugs have previously concluded that khat should not be banned. After several years of battle, Home Secretary Theresa May eventually defied experts and went ahead with the decision.

And there was a huge pressure from the US and other European countries who feared Britain was becoming a hub for khat smuggling.

Britain is one of the last remaining countries in the west where the product remained legal.

All that has now changed and khat will no longer be arriving in containers at Heathrow Airport. But Khat dealers will now be looking into other ways to import the product.

It’s going to become an underground business.