Proponents of a ban on khat, however well-intentioned, are using a range of arguments which do not stand up well against the facts, or survive the application of reason.
Argument 1: the drug chemistry justifies a ban
Khat is a natural form of mephedrone (or amphetamine/speed) which is banned, therefore it is logical that khat must be banned too. Khat is like cocaine, khat is like ecstasy....
Mark Lancaster MP – “The main component, cathinone, is found in meow meow” ...“I was shocked to learn that cathinone and cathine, are members of the same group of drugs as methadone(sic) ... Cathinone and cathine are illegal as is mephedrone yet contradicting all common sense, khat containing these same substances is legal. How can we continue to promote this hypocritical message?”
Mark is muddled over his molecules. Cathinone isn’t mephedrone, although they are indeed related. However that tells us very little that is useful about its risks of khat leaves, which are lower than the risks of either cathinone in a pure form, or mephedrone. Whilst mephedrone is a powder that can be easily binged on, or even injected to produce an instant rush, cathinone is found in low concentrations in khat leaves, and released slowly by chewing over the course of an hour or so. Fatal overdose with khat is impossible, with mephedrone overdose is rare, with alcohol it’s common. Extracted cathinone is already illegal. Pure caffeine (not illegal) is pretty harmful, but that says little about the dangers of coffee.
Comparisons with other drugs such as amphetamine, caffeine, mephedrone etc, are of limited validity and should be used with care.
Argument 2: the drug effects justify a ban
Khat is extremely dangerous and potently intoxicating, with various noxious effects on physical and mental health, so a ban is needed.
The ACMD review found; “In summary, the evidence shows that khat has no direct causal link to adverse medical effects, other than a small number of reports of an association between khat use and significant liver toxicity.”
This is corroborated by DrugScience's review. Having said that, khat, like any drug, and indeed like anything, can cause harm if used inappropriately. As with alcohol or fast food, it is usual to make a distinction between problematic excessive use and ordinary use. This distinction is abandoned by the critics of khat.
Khat is not a hallucinogen like LSD, nor does it alter consciousness in the way that cannabis or alcohol are. It is a stimulant, and after a moderate amount of it, there is no evidence that a user would be incapacitated to think or even drive (although it’s best never to combine drugs with driving). As an aside, there is NO connection between the degree of intoxication a drug causes and its dangers, so implications that a drug are mind-bending and therefore need banning are usually rooted in morality rather than science. Cigarettes cause no intoxication and kill up to half of their persistent users. LSD is one of the most mind-altering drugs, but poses comparatively minimal risks to physical health.
It is likely that khat could play a role in mental health crises in which hallucinations, paranoia and aggression may occur. For example, if someone with a history of trauma from war in Somalia has a breakdown and chews khat without sleeping for days, they may suffer psychosis. Once again, alcohol is associated with mental health issues like this, but few call hallucinations an effect of wine. Hallucination should not be mistaken for an effect that khat causes in normal use.
There is no conclusive evidence that khat is carcinogenic. If khat does prove to cause a risk of cancer so slight that it hasn’t been picked up in some studies asking this very question, this does not make it uniquely dangerous. You can go through the alphabet (Alcohol, Bacon, Coal...) listing objects linked to cancer to some degree. The important factor is the level of risk. Tobacco poses a huge cancer risk to khat users.
Care should be taken to distinguish claims and facts about the effects of khat. Claims of its dangers should not go unchallenged, and could be set against the evidence reviewed by the ACMD.
Argument 3: the will, the cri de coeur, of the affected communities justifies a ban
Communities affected want a ban, it’s racist not to ban it, banning it is a caring, kind act towards the user communities.
Abukar Awale (self-proclaimed Somali representative)
It is true that significant numbers of the Somali community express support for a ban, enough to rally small crowds that have protested in Downing Street. However, one cannot claim to have a democratic mandate by looking only at those who vigorously support the plan. Opinions on khat are diverse. In the UK, there are other communities aside from the Somali community (Ethiopian, Yemeni communities) in which regular khat use is also very common, but who seem to suffer hardly any of the harms that khat allegedly causes in the Somali community. The opinions of these communities are never mentioned. For various cultural and religious reasons, people are less willing to shout about their right to use khat than they are to shout about how evil it is.
Opposition to khat is driven by a small handful of highly motivated individuals such as Awale Akubar, equipped with emotive anecdotes about the devastation khat causes. The ACMD’s review examined the diversity of views and found that the idea that khat is a food, not a drug, and that it has beneficial properties, also has very considerable support in the user communities. If policy is to be justified by anecdotal evidence without concern for establishing the facts, we would like an explanation why the first type of anecdotal belief is considered more valid than the second. Is it any more rational to impose a blanket ban because of anecdotes of harm than to impose universal provision of khat on the NHS because of anecdotes of health benefits?
When such conflicting personal perspectives exist, the need to examine the peer-reviewed scientific evidence is all the more vital. This is not to say that anecdotes about khat are useless, or to say that those who hate khat should pipe down until they have doctorates in drug science. As the ACMD’s review points out, anecdotal evidence is indispensable in guiding research to the right questions. Avoiding khat and warning against its use based on personal opinion is entirely legitimate. However it is another question whether the government should step in to coercively enforce anti-khat values on other adults without objective evidence of exceptional harms.
Psychologists know that collecting reliable evidence of people’s opinions is much harder than it appears. It has been suggested for example that evidence from surveys of considerable support for the proposition that khat should be banned is complicated by the possibility that the question is understood as shorthand for “Do you think khat use is a good or bad thing?” or “would you prefer if khat didn’t exist?” It is also likely that, similar to other drugs, big chunks of the Somali community and the public overestimate the deterrent effect of drug bans and underestimate the unintended consequences, genuinely believing that it is in the government’s power to make problematic drug use go away with the stroke of a pen.
One can imagine a very different result if the question was phrased differently, for example “do you think that people who chew khat should be arrested?” A more sophisticated survey, capable of better separating people’s personal liking /disliking of khat from the practical question of effective policy responses might ask participants to choose between 3 options for the government;-
1) Do nothing
2) Control khat under the Misuse of Drugs act so that criminal sanctions are attached to its possession (with description of potential costs and benefits)
3) Implement ACMD’s recommendations in full, review in 7 years (with description of potential costs and benefits)
The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is designed to classify and control drugs on the objective basis of their harm. Experts have shown that khat is not harmful enough to qualify for the Misuse of Drugs Act so if Theresa May wants a khat ban on a moral basis, she should put before Parliament for their consideration a new Act which does so transparently, rather than misusing the Misuse of Drugs Act.
It is essential to include Somali people’s opinions when reporting on this issue but no single individual, however forthright, can claim to speak for the Somali community, and this should be made clear. Opinions on drug use based in subjective values or religion are of course important, but a distinction needs to be maintained between such moral claims against khat, which cannot be measured as true or false, and objective claims against it, which need to be evaluated against the evidence.
Argument 4: international prohibition, even in the Netherlands, justifies a ban
Look internationally, even the Netherlands, home of wacky drug liberalism, have banned khat! We’ve become ‘out of step’.
Sections of press.
The Netherlands currently have a fragile centre-right government, in which anti-Islam politicians have gained prominence. They are not a bunch of stoned hippie lefties. When they banned khat, they also did so in spite of evidence collected by scientific advisors (Trimbos).
The Dutch scientific advisers of course made a similar assessment as the ACMD have, as the facts are the facts. Co-author Clary van der Veen said, "We made very different recommendations based on our study. The large group of social users is not a problem. You may need to inform them better and point out the long-term effect, just like with smoking and drinking," "In countries where khat has been banned, the integration of Somalis is not faring better," she said.
By following the example of the Netherlands we are following a policy of denial of the evidence.
As we are seeing here, calls to ban khat were mixed up with anti-immigrant sentiment and plain racism. Khat was the excuse for the then Immigration Minister Gerd Leers (now resigned in disgrace) to say that 10% of Somali men were "lethargic and refuse to co-operate with the government or take responsibility for themselves or their families". The 10% figure for problematic khat use appears to be a novel invention, but the image of the lazy, black man who breeds without looking after his offspring and doesn't heed white authority figures is certainly not novel. It barely needs stating that ACMD found no evidence to support a causal link between khat use and social problems like these. They found that for an unemployed person, excessive khat use could indeed be a barrier to getting employment, but cited research for the Home Office by Patel et.al. (2005) that found that a smaller proportion of unemployed Somali men use khat than employed Somali men. The ACMD pointed out that "the majority of users moderate their consumption to fit in with work patterns".
The Dutch Government also cited antisocial behaviour such as littering as a justification to ban khat. The ACMD points out that such problems have already been effectively tackled in the UK through "community-level action working in partnership with police and local authorities".
Whilst the evidence clearly challenges the notion that khat is to blame, in a straightforward way for family breakdown, unemployment etc, there IS irrefutable evidence that criminal records for drug offences cause family breakdown, unemployment and the rest.
The ACMD looked at the international situation, and noted that the bans internationally either were imposed without a scientific assessment, or in the face of the scientific evidence. Where bans have been imposed, the problems of the Somali diaspora have not vanished. Neither has khat. But the price has risen sharply.
In the UK, it is clear that perceptions around khat are highly influenced by anti-immigration (or more plainly racist) sentiment. On the 4th July 2013, the ‘best rated’ comment on the story that a ‘Defiant’ Home Secretary was outlawing khat was simply "ban the drug and deport the users".
The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is designed to classify drugs on the basis of their harmfulness.
Argument 5: terrorist links justify a ban
Khat is “linked to al-Qaeda”, or the trade funds al-Shabaab, or the khat cafes breed radicalisation, so we need a ban.
Daily Mail, Sun
It is notable that Abukar Awale, the self-proclaimed Lead Campaigner for a khat ban, appeared to admit to a journalist that he likes to feed fears about terrorism as that is the key which forces political action.
"This is the tool for me," Awale said. "I will put this on the table and say, 'Now you must act'. And they will act. When this country hears terrorism, they will act."
Awale deserves a well-paid job as a phenomenally talented political lobbyist. Baroness Warsi cited him in the Conservatives first calls to ban khat in 2008, this year he told the Mail on Sunday that Lee Rigby’s murder was linked to khat.
After the ACMD had reviewed the evidence for the link between khat and terrorism, the chair of the ACMD called this a ‘nasty little rumour’. Whilst Somali use of khat is often integrated into the local Muslim tradition, so that it is used in celebrations and to fuel nights of Koranic study, most Muslim authorities from other traditions internationally consider khat-use to be at best undesirable and at worst forbidden. In fact, radicals spreading a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam into East Africa have been a major force behind the prohibition of khat there.
There is no reason to believe that khat cafes are linked to radicalisation, and the narrative is indicative of a general suspicion of Muslims, or indeed any people who are not white British. The Sun’s article making these lurid claims has the following comments below it;- ‘scouseviking’ says “Maybe if U turn Osborne put VAT on it, the Somalians might all want to protest then you can round em all up and ship em home.....simples”
Once drugs are illegal, the trade goes underground, becomes massively more profitable, and the illegal trade in heroin certainly has been a major source of funds for the Taliban and other fanatics. The sheer injustice of a ban like this targeted on an already marginalised population within a country that celebrates the legal use and abuse of our own socially lubricating drug, alcohol, would, if anything, foster the alienation and ostracision which radicalisers feed upon.
Perhaps Theresa May has in the back of her mind a hope of some favourable headlines in certain tabloids that gave her a hard time over her struggles with Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada. But it is very ironic that a khat ban seems to appeal to the very same anti-immigration demographic as a way of taking a tough stance regarding Muslims in the UK, since Abu Hamza would likely have been very much in favour of Sharia law banning khat in the UK. Since May can’t justify banning khat on public health grounds, she’d be better off taking a Sharia-like approach and banning it on grounds of morality!