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
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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.