Banning Khat is one of the most dangerous decisions made during the 'war on drugs'

Khat has been part of Somali, Yemeni and Ethiopian culture for hundreds of years. In banning the substance, Theresa May runs a very real risk of creating violence and organised crime.

The recent move by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to ban the stimulant Khat is only the latest in a long line of drug policy decisions by governments of all persuasions that ignores evidence and will prove counter-productive. Drug policy still appears to be one of the only areas where evidence-based policy making has no place. Despite the obvious failure of the ‘war on drugs’, and a growing body of evidence that suggests that aggressive law enforcement makes the situation worse, politicians seem determined to pursue the same futile policies in a desperate attempt not to appear ‘soft on drugs’. Criminalising the sale and consumption of Khat will only result in the creation of an illegal black market, which will enrich organised criminal networks; most probably newly formed criminal syndicates.

Not for the first time, the government is completely disregarding advice by its own scientists. In February, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) published a report which recommended that the law should not change to include Khat as a substance controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The study found that Khat ‘has no direct causal link to adverse medical effects’. It also noted that there was no evidence that Khat was linked to ‘serious or organised crime’. Given these findings it is a tragic wonder that the secretary of state opted to push ahead with the ban.

When questioned as to why she chose to ignore such scientific evidence, the home secretary said she had to look at the issue ‘in a wider context’; stating that there ‘was the potential for the UK to become a smuggling hub for Khat’. However, the ACMD explicitly state that VAT figures provided by HMRC on Khat imports suggest this fear is unfounded. They go on to state that there is not “any evidence suggesting the UK is a landing point for the onward transportation of significant quantities of Khat”.

Khat is a part of the culture of many Somalis, Yemenis and Ethiopians. Given this it is highly unlikely that they will stop chewing, as noted by Keith Vaz when Theresa May appeared before his home affairs select committee on 16 July. The increase in price inevitable when a substance is banned will make supplying Khat much more profitable than it is now. This will attract organised crime, and given the nature of the communities where Khat is prolific, and the cultural acceptance it has there, it is quite possible the gangs that will control the trade once illegal will be newly formed organisations from within the consuming communities. While the ACMD report states that there is no link between Khat and organised crime, it is hard to see this statement remaining true post-ban.  

The 'war on drugs' approach of criminalising supply and consumption has been an unequivocal failure. Eduardo Porter writing in the New York Times (July 3 2012) gave the shocking statistic that a gram of pure cocaine from an average, local dealer now costs 74% less than it did 30 years ago. This demonstrates that banning a drug does not impact the availability by pricing consumers out of the market. 

One of the biggest flaws in the war on drugs is the counter-productive nature of law enforcement. Once the market in any illegal drug is established, law enforcement interventions actually increase violence. A systematic review of the effect of law enforcement on drug violence for the International Journal of Drug Policy showed that in that, in 14 out of 15 studies, law enforcement interventions not only failed to decrease violence, but led to more violence. Dan Werb et al (2011) state this is due to the resulting conflict to takeover when top figures are removed by investigations, and by ‘target hardening’, where organisations become increasingly militarised due to constant threat from rivals or the authorities.

The real danger is that this law enforcement effect gradually influences the newly formed criminal organisations supplying Khat, turning them into serious, hardened organised crime structures. If this is the case, Theresa May will have succeeded in creating organised crime, with the resulting fear and fallout, where none existed.

A trader prepares Khat parcels for sale at a local market in Kenya. Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.