By Mohamed Ibrahim
It is official, effective June 24th 2014, the sale and consumption of the recreational leafy stimulant called Khat, scientifically known as catha endulis which is popular among East Africans and Yemenis will be illegal in the United Kingdom.
Off course the ban of khat is not news as it has been in the news for almost a year now after the Home Secretary Theresa May went ahead and controversially criminalized a recreational herbal substance against the advice of the government’s own scientific team that were mandated to give its expert opinion on the same.
As expected different sectors and interest groups within the larger East African society both in UK and in East Africa reacted differently on the ban. Of importance was the support the ban received from sectors of Somali-British community who happen to be the main consumers of Khat. Their arguments include the psychosocial effects of Khat among the individual users, their families and the community in general in UK and back home, which are all valid.
The most anti-ban rhetoric as expected come from the Kenyan growers of Khat; the Meru community; the sole growers of this crop, happens also to be a powerful political community in respect to the current Uhuru Kenyatta led government which enjoys an overwhelming support from the region, so it is not a surprise that the current government gave full political and financial support to the farmer’s fight against the ban both in the media and the courts in UK and Kenya. However the Uhuru government thus far remains noncommittal on how to legislate the use of khat within Kenya e.g. underage use, selling near schools etc.
The merits and demerits of Khat and its ban have been widely discussed in the media by protagonist and antagonist and hence will not delve into that, but will get off the beaten track and give a critical perspective into the ban from a historical and contemporary racial and ethnic minority perspective especially in respect to criminalization tactics used by governments as a tool of oppression of racialized groups but also as a political rhetoric to appease the political base of the implementing governments.
What does history tells us? The Nixon and Reagan administrations of USA subtly and politically used the “war on drugs” campaign to appeal to their conservative electorates. In the early 1970s after the success of civil rights campaigns against racist Jim Crow laws, the conservative base of the Republican Party were not happy with the gains made by African Americans, and Nixon used the drug issue as a popular campaign to gain an edge in the election. Similarly Reagan copied the strategy. The campaign was loop sided in that arrests and convictions of drug possession disproportionately and specifically affected African American men leading to mass incarceration of black men. It’s estimated that about 7 million Americans are currently either in prison or in one way or another under the justice criminal system, out of which 2 million are African Americans when they only make about 13% of the American population. In fact under Reagan, the Congress passed a bill that heavily penalized the possession of crack cocaine which is popular among African Americans as compared to powder cocaine among White Americans. For example a 5grams of crack cocaine warranted a minimum of 5 years federal prison while 500grams of powder cocaine equaled the same punishment. To correct this unfair law the Obama administration introduced the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 thus replacing the racially unfair Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. The “war on drugs” as popularly declared by Nixon/Reagan/Bush Sr. axis has miserably failed in the USA, created a huge judicial and societal nightmare and now the current Obama administration is looking into ways to approach the whole issue of criminalization and subsequent incarceration of users.
So what has these historical issues got to do with the Khat ban? I really don’t know what goes on in No. 10 Downing Street or at Theresa May’s ministry but, is this ban a ploy to open the door for the mass incarceration of young East African and Yemeni men for the Tories to have an edge in this political era where anti-immigrants and anti-Muslim parties like English Defense League and UKIP party gaining popularity among White Britons? I don’t think users will suddenly stop using Khat; it will only go underground, become expensive and probably tag along other illegal drugs to survive in the tough underworld. Young Somali men are already heavily profiled for being Black and Muslim and this will add another layer of label and stigma. It will be another good reason for law enforcement agencies to stop and frisk this group.
The decriminalization debate about hard drugs is currently taking place in the UK (see Nick Clegg http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/feb/08/clegg-britain-must-join-drugs-debate, or British Medical Journal article on http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-24342421,)
So why is David Cameroon going ahead with the ban when scientists are advising otherwise? My hypothesis is that the conservative government is playing the same old ineffective pseudo war-on-drug rhetoric to appease its base for political survival. Unfortunately the UK government is having an easy time in executing this ban because the affected groups are already voiceless and racialized groups that are at the margins of the society. Despite the impending ban, I did not hear or read any supportive medical and social interventions for users of Khat. Does it mean the UK government is OK with users going “cold turkey” on their addiction and invariably suffering from withdrawal symptoms? It is so hypocritical that harm reduction strategies (needle exchange for intravenous drug users, methadone treatments for opioid addiction etc) is in place across the country yet the government will suddenly outlaw what is a potentially addictive drug and not roll out supportive programs for its users.
Lastly let me clearly state that I am not a pro-khat but I do not support the ban either, as a mental health and addiction clinician with clinical practice spanning Kenya, USA and Canada I do not believe the ban will be an effective strategy . Many young Somalis are already incarcerated and have one of the lowest high school graduations, and criminalizing khat will increase law enforcement focus on them, increasing the tension and mistrust that already exist.
My advice for those working hard for the banning of Khat should include in their campaign how to keep these young men out of prison by working with the Home Secretary, law enforcement and other stakeholders.
The writer, Mohamed Ibrahim PhD (abd), is a lecturer and addiction expert based in Canada.