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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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