David Cameron Fails to Justify UK Scheduling of Khat

On June 24, khat -- a plant native to the Horn of Africa which is chewed for its mild stimulant effect -- was scheduled as a class C drug in the United Kingdom. In a vague attempt to justify this decision, the prime minister, David Cameron, wrote a strange article for the Somalian news site Hiiraan Online, which can be found here. Below are some highlights and comments.

David Cameron: “This Government’s decision to ban [khat] has been welcomed by people across the country.”

It is unfortunate that Mr Cameron doesn’t tell us which ‘people’ he has in mind. Nevertheless, here are a few people that are probably not welcoming the decision, along with some other justificatory nuggets from the PM.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) is the expert body responsible for advising the government in matters of drug scheduling. They produced an advisory report at the request of the Government entitled Khat: A review of its potential harms to the individual and communities in the UK. Their recommendations “are based on a rigorous and systematic process of evidence gathering and subsequent analysis”. Although the comprehensive report is nearly 100 pages long, here is one paragraph worth quoting in full, where the overriding theme is pretty clear:

“On the basis of the available evidence, the overwhelming majority of Council members consider that khat should not be controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. In summary the reason for this is that, save for the issue of liver toxicity, although there may be a correlation or association between the use of khat and various negative social indicators, it is not possible to conclude that there is any causal link. The ACMD considers that the evidence of harms associated with the use of khat is insufficient to justify control and it would be inappropriate and disproportionate to classify khat under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. In summary the ACMD considers that the harms of khat does not reach the level required for classification. Therefore, the ACMD recommend that the status of khat is not changed.” [emphasis added]

It should be noted that it takes some rhetorical effort to get the same point across five times in one paragraph in five different ways - it is almost as if the authors worried that they might be ignored if the point wasn’t hammered home.

David Cameron: “We have good reasons to be concerned about the potential damage of khat abuse to people’s health.”

Professor David Nutt (expert on how drugs affect humans, sacked by the Government from his position as chair of the ACMD for communicating drug harms in a rational and scientific way) writing in the Guardian last year:

“The risks associated with … qat are not something we should take lightly, but bans are an excuse to do nothing productive to address a problem … by nearly every possible objective measure, alcohol causes far greater danger to health, life and society at large than qat ...”

David Cameron: “what is most concerning is khat’s social impact and … links to the global illicit drugs trade.”

The Home Affairs Select Committee (a committee that consists of 11 MP’s, drawn from each major party, which is charged with making recommendations to government on important decisions including the proposed khat ban) suggested:

“the potential negative effects, both on the diaspora communities who consume khat in the UK, and on the growers who cultivate it in Africa, outweigh any possible benefits of the ban … the proposed prohibition of khat would drastically increase the likelihood of its distribution as a commodity for organised criminals … It is extremely worrying that such an important decision has not been taken on the basis of evidence or consultation”.

David Cameron: “this country is fast becoming the khat smuggling capital of Europe… we want to end it once and for all.”

This point is only worth making if it has already been shown that khat is something we should be worried about for other reasons – otherwise we are arguing in circles. It could be rephrased as: ‘people are moving a relatively harmless plant from one country to another, and that is why we are banning it’. As the ACMD report states: “There is no evidence of khat consumption being directly linked with serious or organised criminal behaviour in the UK or to support the theory that khat is funding or fueling crime.” It also seems likely that the quick decomposition of khat (about 72 hours according to this 2014 UNODC report), renders it an awkward plant to smuggle between several countries.

To top it all off, even if organised crime links were something to be worried about, banning khat will exacerbate rather than eradicate this issue. As mentioned, the Home Affairs Select Committee helpfully point out the obvious: “[t]he proposed prohibition of khat would drastically increase the likelihood of its distribution as a commodity for organised criminals.”

David Cameron: “Government’s overriding aim is to give people security and peace of mind in every area of life. Removing this drug from our streets and from people’s lives is one important way of doing that.”

  • Khat will not be ‘removed’ from the streets (or people's lives), the Government have simply forced the market for khat underground. To claim anything else is either disingenuous or naïve.
  • 'Security and peace of mind' is not what springs to mind when we ask how the Somali, Yemeni and Kenyan diaspora will feel about being stopped and searched, fined and criminally convicted for possession of a relatively harmless plant that they have used quite freely and without problems for decades in the UK.
  • The fact that the police have been forced to add yet another largely harmless substance to the list of things that they have to be on the lookout for is a profound waste of valuable police time. It also erodes already fragile relationships between the police and the marginalised communities that they are supposed to serve.

To the cynic, it might appear as though the Government asked for the advice of the ACMD in the full knowledge that its recommendations would be ignored unless they aligned with the already-made decision to ban khat.

Perhaps -- instead of penning condescending articles oddly littered with self-congratulatory foreign policy rhetoric and intentionally misleading innuendo -- the Prime Minister and our Government should commit to giving real explanations each and every time they decide to ignore the evidence, the facts and the ACMD.

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William Montgomery is a policy researcher at The Beckley Foundation. You can follow him here: @Monthrie.