The Government’s drugs strategy rightly declares its desire to ‘support people to live a drug free life.’ Clear plans are laid to build recovery in communities and help people into sustainable employment. Whilst these are admirable aspirations, one drug, highlighted in opposition seems to have fallen of the Government’s policy radar. Khat is a stimulant which is currently illegal in the US and several other European countries. The usual suspects of crack cocaine and heroin are awarded just attention, yet the harm caused by khat is again sidelined. Oddly Khat did receive attention from leading Conservative colleagues when in opposition. In a June 2008 Guardian article boldly titled ‘Conservatives will ban Khat’ , Sayeeda Warsi announced that “a future Conservative government would legislate to make Khat a classified drug”, a promise that is still to be enacted on.
Having witnessed the social discord caused by this recreational drug within my own constituency, it is with baited breath that I await this month’s findings of a review carried out by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). So will the promises of opposition finally be enacted on?
Khat is a plant grown in East Africa and along the Arab Peninsula, which is chewed for long periods of time. The physical effects are redolent of those generated by classified drugs; the addictiveness of nicotine, the paranoia of cannabis, and the insomnia of speed. The main component, cathinone, is found in meow meow, a drug the government were quick to act upon last year following a tabloid storm. The long leash which khat currently operates on can only lead to a similar throng of tragic incidents.
Although it has remained largely on the periphery of national concern, these communities are fighting hard to be heard. Members from across the parties have shared similar tales of woe within their own constituencies, and I worry that pushing this problem aside further resigns it to an issue which doesn’t concern our borders.
Whether it is the unemployment caused by this nocturnal habit, or the violence and lack of integration, my office has logged innumerable complaints stemming from sales of the drug. Adan Kahin, President of Milton Keynes Somali Community, has spoken with me about the seismic problems caused by khat. From the unaffordable expense of dental treatment to fix decay, to the murder of a dealer in Newport Pagnell, khat is blighting our estates.
At only £3.50 a bunch, the initial purchase might not break the bank, but with four required for any given ‘chat and chew’ session, alongside the copious amounts of cigarettes and sugary drinks consumed, the expenditure soon tots up. In areas of deprivation, this cost is damaging not just to the individual but to their family and children.
Studies show that Somalis, the key consumers of khat, are already found to be living in areas with high levels of unemployment, crime and limited local amenities. Khat directly feeds this environment, appealing to users as a form of escapism, whilst offering few avenues of progression.
The disunity between ethnic minorities and the government on this issue is concerning. Adan spoke of the widespread support amongst his community of a blanket ban, yet in return, we have shown little movement beyond ‘monitoring’ it. He compared khat-riddled UK towns and cities with states such as Minnesota, who have a thriving Somali population that are working, studying, and succeeding. It is no coincidence that khat is illegal in the United States.
In encouraging users back into work, and changing their habitual behaviour, we will see an economic benefit in regulation. We must offer support to current users, and show them that our intent is not to simply cut and run, but to improve the environment and opportunities around them. Tackling the prevalence of khat in a responsible way will inevitably improve the concurrent concerns of these areas.
With no record of hospital admissions, GP’s unsure how to advise users, and no recorded crime statistics, the future for khat users is very bleak indeed. The longer we go on branding it a problem from the East of Africa, the more harmful the effects are right here, right now. Khat is a UK problem, for this UK government to tackle. We have fallen behind, and now is the time to make amends and do the right thing.