It is banned in the US, banned in the Netherlands, but the UK Government’s official drugs advisory body has rejected calls to ban khat, a herbal stimulant from east Africa.
Somalis, Yemenis, Kenyans and Ethopians regularly chew the stuff, its chief advantage over other narcotics being it not expressly outlawed in the Koran. Planes full of the plants fly to the UK every week, which is then dispatched to parts of the country with large east African populations, and sold perfectly legally, mainly in newsagents and corner shop style grocers. Most of the stuff that makes it to the UK comes from Kenya, where it fetches more than coffee and bananas. A UK ban would have been devastating news for large numbers of Kenyan farmers. An estimated £400m is spent on the stuff in the UK every year, and being legal, a sizeable chunk of this goes to the exchequer.
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) said there was “insufficient evidence” that khat caused health problems. It was a sentiment echoed by Beka, a Somalian buying a £6 bunch of the stuff at the Al-aseel supermarket on London’s decidedly Arabian thoroughfare, Edgware Road,. “It’s not like drug, not like alcohol,” he said. He has been chewing it for twenty years. “It’s like Red Bull, you know. You chew it for help concentrate. Reading book. Or interviewing for job.” So The Independent bought a bunch too. The shopkeeper, who didn’t want to be named, said it was the first bunch he had sold to a white person.
Consumers of khat chew its leaves and the tender part of the stems, a little bit at a time, until they are soft, then deposit the stuff, hamster-like stuff into the cheeks, where it accumulates into a ball to be spat out hours and hours later. In East African khat houses, and the UK too – number 15, in Southall, west London is the best known – big round cheeks are a status symbol.
It tastes hideous. Overwhelmingly bitter, like biting into a pot plant. The mouth then floods with saliva, compelling you to swallow, which you’re not supposed to do (it’s not dangerous, but swallowing would limit the effects). At this point you take a sweet drink to take away the bitterness, chew for a bit, then send to the cheeks.
A couple of hours later, this reporter felt decidedly wired. Talkative, but rather anxious. Perhaps like drinking three pints and four espressos. It is mild, nowhere near as potent as alcohol, but if this is forbidden, you can see the appeal. It stimulates dopamine, causing excitement, and mild euphoria. The same as chewing coca leaves, the base ingredient for cocaine and around a thousand times milder, a practice popular throughout the Andes.
Yemeni businessman chew it while talking over deals. Mahdi Jama, a Somalian, and a regular chewer at Southall’s Number 15, told Channel 4 News: “Why you ban something my father, his father and his father done it. I understand there are people who have a lot, a lot, of problems with it, but those people are people who are addicts. You have the same problem with alcohol, cigarettes or weed.” It is an argument that feeds into a feeling of discrimination. Why should the teetotal East African community have their narcotic of choice banned?
“If I wanted to get married tomorrow the first thing I would do is I would buy loads of khat and sit down with my father in law and we would have a good chat,” Mr Jama said. “Because, I cannot buy a bottle of wine for him. He is a Muslim man.”
Opponents to khat, who have come primarily from within the Somali community where it is most widespread, point to the problems of addiction, unemployment and family breakdown.
Their particular concern is for its spread amongst the young. Its legality, they claim, makes young people think it is safe to use it.“
ACMD chairman Professor Les Iversen said the review ”found insufficient evidence of either health or societal harms caused by the use of khat to justify its control in the UK“.
He added: ”We have listened to concerns of the community and recommend local authorities and the police address these through continued engagement.“
Abukar Awale, a former addict, leads the campaign to ban it. He recently held prayers outside Downing Street to put pressure on the government. ”We will challenge the decision,” he said. “For the government, it's not about how harmful this product is, it's who is using it - and that is discrimination. Our lawyers have been preparing for this, and we will take legal action within the next three months.“