(BSMG – L. Obsiye) In an age of evidence based policy, where dogma and ideology were supposed to be abandoned for a more sophisticated and just approach informed by the public interest, the coalition government’s banning of the mild stimulant khat seems a poor choice. This decision, without doubt, is more political than rational. In any case, the likely outcomes are frightening.In a statement to Parliament in July this year, the Home Secretary Theresa May stated that despite there had been limited evidence to ban khat use on health grounds and advised against doing so by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), she was going to do it anyway. This was because it contributed to other social issues such as “family breakdown and low educational attainment” that were causes of social harms. Theresa May went on to point out that other G8 nations and European Union member states such as the Netherlands had already controlled khat and that if the UK did not follow soon it would transform into a “hub” for the exportation and “on ward trafficking” of the mild stimulant to its EU neighbours. In her usual robust and unapologetic style, the Home Secretary made very clear that her government’s decision to ban khat, despite having no scientific backing, is inspired by a wish to “protect vulnerable members of our communities” and the need to send a clear and loud message to Britain’s international partners and khat smugglers that this nation is “serious about stopping the illegal trafficking of khat.”
Khat is a mild stimulant used widely within the Somali, Yemeni and Ethiopian communities in the UK. It can cost as little as £3 a bunch and is consumed both at home and in specific khat dens called Mafrishes. Khat use is endemic in East Africa where it originated and many members of the new communities, such as the Somalis who arrived mainly as refugees since the early 1990’s when civil war broke out in their country and as European Union citizens exercising their Free Movement of Persons Rights to the UK, use it. Although khat is not associated with physical addiction it can cause long term psychological dependence with side effects ranging from mood swings, paranoia, excessive excitement and anxiety to aggressiveness.
Khat in the Somali community
Khat is consumed in the UK predominantly by men and now, more worryingly, women binge eat it privately as a result of the strength of the social stigma attached to the use of it for their gender. Khat, as the Home Secretary argued, has led to many social ills which hamper the progress of the entire Somali community in the UK. It arguably contributes to and sustains high unemployment, Domestic Violence, family breakdown, poor educational achievement and societal disengagement. The next generation of Somalis in who so much hope is invested are also starting to use the stimulant as a past time even as many of them are working towards professionalism. The simple fact is that khat is socially harmful and could potentially lead to poor health if used regularly and in large quantities. It is a drug which is time consuming to chew and can lead, and has led, many who have abused it to mental illness – in the UK. However, like drinking in Britain and most of Europe, it is part of an established culture which will be hard to tackle simply through rushed and reactive legislation based on nothing but moral arguments. The pantomime of moral outrage, panic and institutional toughness has always plagued British drugs policy. Every government wants to be tougher than the last, but they usually waste public finances by ignoring the advice of the very experts they commission to determine the severity of harm caused by the substances they want to ban. Sensibility, when it comes to this emotional issue, is always side-lined for middle England populism where the politicians feel the most votes reside.
Impact of criminalisation
The Somali community in the UK is already among the most deprived and marginalised. Khat abuse is a symptom and not a cause of the barriers they face to education, employment and integration. The impact of rushed criminalisation of khat use is made ever more confusing by the law. Khat is likely to be a class C drug, and the possession and supplying of any drug in this category is a crime but the latter is more widely focused on by the Police and Courts where as the former is tolerated so long it is for personal use. Simply handing over some khat to a dear friend, as is the custom at weddings and other social gatherings, can lead to arrest and prosecution. This in turn will ensure that, as a result of a criminal record, the already socially excluded Somali community members are further distanced from any hope of integration through meaningful employment and training. After the ban it will prove extremely difficult if not impossible to import khat into the UK as it is bulky, easy to identify and has a distinct easy to detect smell. However, even if a small amount does sneak through customs the cost will be extortionate as there will always be a market for it. In America a single mijiin (bunch) of khat can cost as much as $70-100. It is banned in Canada, Netherlands and Sweden and many other developed nations where Somalis have settled after the break out of the civil war in their home nation but it is still available like most drugs. In the event of perfect border management on the part of the British government so as to ensure no khat comes to the UK, most of the social users approached for this article have suggested they will just quit. Others said they will find alternative drugs such as Marijuana and alcohol. Where it now costs on average £3 a bunch and at most £5 on days when supply is limited, the prices of the alternative drugs in the absence of khat will hurt already stretched family finances even further. A hidden consequence of the khat ban is that most of the anti khat campaigners and supporters who lobbied Parliament and their local MPs were women whose husband or children used khat. Now that their wishes have come true, any criminalisation of family members such as sons and husbands will be blamed on them. This is the fear many female anti khat activists have alongside a rise in domestic violence, the use of other drugs by addicted family members and patchy health and social support system for user rehabilitation.
Khat is not the problem
Theresa May’s speech was alarmist and as rushed as her response to the khat issue. An eloquent speech does not make a senseless argument any easier to intellectually digest and justify. Yes, the majority of the Somali community and those who work with them agree it is a cause of many social problems which hamper the progress of the entire community. However, what is misleading is to present it as the main cause and not the effect of social isolation and exclusion, poverty, and neglect on the part of policy makers and service providers nationally. Talking to khat users and sellers in London, Bristol and Birmingham over the last month what is clear is that many khat sellers do not like the very product they sell. Most do not chew it. One seller had a PhD in Chemistry from India and worked as a Professor in a Somali university before seeking asylum in the UK in the early 90’s. He started selling khat because he could not live on the petty food hand-outs he was receiving as a refugee when he arrived and then the lack of employment afterwards despite retraining in college to work in the construction industry. This seller, who requested his personal details and location not to be revealed, along with his business partner were pushed into selling khat by economic hardship, a need to support their large families and discrimination in the job markets they wanted to enter. No seller was pulled into selling khat by the great prospect of becoming wealthy and many to this day see it as a subsistent means of earning a living. When it becomes illegal most sellers who were interviewed stated they would quit selling it as they do not want to be involved in a criminal activity. In any case, importing it will be costly and selling it may not be profitable as most Somali people are law abiding and the few that are not may not be able to pay the higher prices to sustain the business. Khat users were also very vocal about been pushed into using khat by social isolation, lack of support, employment and the impossibility of integrating into Britain, a nation which they see as offering a safe accommodation but not a wider welcoming mat in terms of opportunities.
“I am an EU citizen from Sweden,” one interviewee said in Bristol who did not want to be named. “In Sweden I was supported to learn the language, given a support worker to help me find employment and in the city I lived matched with a Somali community group to assist me settle in. Here in England it seems like you get status and then you’re on your own.” This sentiment is not much further from the truth as while refugees generally get signposted to services such as housing and benefits, there are limited financial resources and a laissez-faire political attitude to holistically supporting their integration. Most rely on friends for key everyday things such interpretation. It would seem from this that khat is not and was never the real problem. Even without khat the dominant social structures which prevented the Somali community’s success in the last two decades in the UK remain firmly in place today.
The way forward
Ideally in a more politically equitable and sensible place in a faraway universe somewhere; the banning of khat would not have ever happened as policy advisers would have listened to the experts and their appointed Police chiefs who feel some class C drugs should be legalised. Even in a faraway distant planet with less equity, it would have come in stages with full state support for local education, information and a localised community impact assessment. But in England no such luck. The law is simply the law and the Somali community must just get on with it.
Local Authorities, charities and the Police have very limited policy guidance from the centre on the khat ban and its implementation. The Somali community’s worry is that there will be discretionary policing and justice enforcement across the UK. This is a concern on the part of the Police force too in major cities of the UK where Somalis reside. However, like with Cannabis, the Home Office is likely to formalise and release policy guidance for all stakeholders concerned on the matter. Whether it is proportionate, just and easy to implement across the board remains to be seen. However, it will arguably increase the young Somalis fears that they will be stopped and searched more as there is, as one 19 year old in London put it, “another reason to do so.”
In the build up to the ban itself the Somali community groups in London, Bristol and Birmingham have been engaging with key stakeholders to advocate for the changes that must accompany the ban. It is clear that they, like the stakeholders, have to make the best of a bad policy as the government that diagnosed the illness does not seem to be in a rush to offer a cure. Even if one does exist it is doubtful they will fund it adequately so as to mitigate the damage and hardship for the individuals and families who will suffer the most.
The Somali Forum in Bristol, an umbrella organisation for the Somali community groups in the city, with partners, organised meetings between the community and key local and national stakeholders in the khat ban. What was clear was the willingness to work together in the interest of the community across policing, health, housing and welfare and benefits to minimise the harm caused by the effects of the rushed government policy. Discussions between key players have also taken place in other major cities too but this is not enough. The khat ban needs to herald in a new age of worthwhile partnerships between Somali community groups and public service providers in the UK if the implementation of the ban is to be carried out effectively. More pressingly, Somali community groups have to be at the heart of any strategy to deliver education, information or support services related to the ban to community members who see mainstream definitions such as “drug treatment” as a stigma and will never engage with it. Culturally sensitive approaches will not only ensure effective implementation but will also break down barriers, ease suspicion and strengthen the very organisations that ought to be commissioned to carry out research and devise and execute funded projects locally in the future where they have the ability, experience and desire.
The khat ban was a surprise, knee jerk policy against professional drugs experts’ advice. However, it is to be banned and the only way to tackle the issue is to adopt a multi-agency approach with culturally sensitive local policies at the core. The Somali community, whilst mostly welcoming the ban, will be affected disproportionately by it. People would lose their livelihoods, some criminalised and others will fall through the health treatment cracks as services will most likely not be culturally relevant. The only way to improve on this is to work with the Somali community groups to widen training, education and employment opportunities as well as training and commissioning Somali service providers in all areas of social policy related to khat use and ban. At present there is no Somali-led organisation working within the drug rehabilitation and advisory groups in most cities, but they need to be trained and encouraged so as to reach the Somali community effectively. This will not be easy but absolutely necessary in ensuring the Somali community is not further marginalised and prevented from integrating into British society and achieving their individual and communal goals.
The fundamental danger with the khat ban is that the local service provider’s aspirations may not be met with government sympathy and funding. This would be a cruel betrayal and alongside fully funding the holistic support needed to manage the effects of the ban, there needs to be further research and monitoring of the impact it has and will have in the future on one of the most vulnerable new communities in the Uk.
Liban Obsiye has over 8 years of working with and advising many different Somali charities in Bristol, London and Birmingham. He is one of the Directors of Ashley Community Housing and Support in Bristol and Birmingham. Also, he is the elected Secretary of the Somali Forum in Bristol.
He can be contacted:
- Khat: Drug to be made illegal next year causes boom in imports (dailymail.co.uk)
- Kenyan farmers, leaders challenge miraa ban in London court (nation.co.ke)
- Kenya funds lawsuit against Theresa May’s ban on herbal stimulant khat (independent.co.uk)
- Parliament to blame for miraa quandary – NACADA (capitalfm.co.ke)
- Khat smuggled into US in parcels labelled as wedding dresses, court told (walesonline.co.uk)