Somalilandsun – An unusual battle is simmering in Britain; a fight to stop the ban on miraa – or khat –a popular recreational twig among the Diaspora from Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Yemen. Segments of the UK’s 220,000-strong Somali community are fighting the prohibition, saying it is an affront on their culture and an infringement on their tradition.
The Somali community – many of them having migrated from Kenya – is spread out throughout the UK and live in cities including London, Cardiff, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Leicester, Manchester and Sheffield. More than 100,000 people in the Diaspora here, mainly first generation eastern Africans, are ardent consumers of the thousands of boxes of miraa imported into the country daily.
The UK, and London in particular, is at the heart of the trade in this twig, which was largely imported from Somalia through Kenya. However, importation of the produce through Kenya dropped drastically following Kenyan intervention in Somalia to root out Al Shabaab.
Class C drug In July, UK Home Secretary Theresa May slapped a ban on the use of khat in the country, making it a prohibited Class C drug similar to cannabis. Mrs May declared on July 3 that anyone caught trafficking and supplying the twig would face up to 14 years in prison and an unlimited fine. The ban is yet to be fully enforced.
But there are indications that Britain will be left with little choice but to make a U-turn on the ban as lawmakers have called for the ban to be dropped arguing it could alienate immigrants from eastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. On November 29, the influential Home Affairs Committee called on the Home Secretary to abandon plans to control khat under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The committee, which has no legal power, recommended instead the introduction of a licensing scheme for importers of the twig. The Committee concluded that the Government’s decision to control khat was not based on evidence of medical or social harm.
The Committee said it had not received any compelling evidence that the consumption of khat is linked to any medical or social harm, and to control it as a Class C drug would be disproportionate. Legislative proposals There has been no consultation with consumers of the twig especially the Somali, Yemeni and Kenyan communities.
Leicester East MP Keith Vaz, chairman of the Committee, said: “It is extremely worrying that such an important decision has not been taken on the basis of evidence or consultation. The expert Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs conducted a thorough review of the evidence and concluded that no social or medical harm resulted from the use of khat. We support the Advisory Council’s findings.”
The Committee concluded that the potential negative effects, both on the Diaspora communities who are khat consumers in the UK, and on the growers who cultivate it in East Africa, outweigh any possible benefits of the ban. The ban has the potential to specifically damage UK-Kenya relations. The Committee is concerned that an important relationship in combatting terrorism could be significantly and detrimentally affected. The Government has postponed a Commons debate on the legislation to give effect to the ban, pending the Committee’s findings.
If the Committee’s recommendations are accepted, then there will be no need to go ahead with the current legislative proposals, though alternative measures for import licences may be required. Mr Vaz said the UK should not become a hub for the distribution of illegal khat, adding that it is wrong to place legal importers in the impossible position of choosing between a life of potential hardship or one of crime.
“The best solution is the introduction of a licensing system for importers as a middle way between unregulated trade and an outright ban. It is baffling that potential friction, between already disadvantaged communities and police, has not been fully considered. We cannot afford for those who are already marginalised to be pushed towards criminality or extremism.
It is vital that prohibition in the UK does not result in an increase in recruitment of Al-Shabaab abroad.” When Mrs May announced the ban she said the Government had based its decision on “robust consultation” with the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which carried out extensive review of available scientific evidence on the harm of using it but it did not recommend a ban.
Millions in revenue The Government noted that khat continues to feature prominently amongst the health and social harms, such as low attainment and family breakdown, cited by affected communities, police and local authorities working with them in the UK. Critics say that a U-turn would be embarrassing to the Cameron Government and question Mrs May’s ability to handle her job sensitively.
They accuse her of taking decisions without doing proper research into the issues involved and possible repercussions. Since February 1998, khat has been classified as a stimulant drug by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and so is standard-rated for VAT at 20 per cent.
The volume of khat imported into the UK has remained stable for the past eight years, at between 2,500 and 2,800 tonnes. In 2012/2013, HMRC collected £2.5m of an import value of £12.4m. Other sources estimate that the khat trade generates more than £400 million in revenue for the British economy.
In recent years, despite campaigns to educate consumers of the leaf about the harms of using it, many remain defiant, saying khat has been used traditionally for decades and no one should stop that. Demand for the leaf also increased in Europe, as eastern Africans living there sought supplies in countries like the Netherlands.
This has been evidenced by an increase in seizures of khat en route to the Netherlands from the UK since the Dutch ban.