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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.

New Statesman
A trader prepares Khat parcels for sale at a local market in Kenya. Photo: Getty

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.