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The Banning of Khat in the UK

A collective of Kenyan MPs have decided to push a motion in parliament that will evict UK farmers from Meru, a region largely known for growing khat, a herbal stimulant. The move comes after the British government’s decision to categorize Khat as a class C drug. According to the British government, possession of a class C drug in the UK is punished with up to two years in prison and/or a fine (with no restrictions on the size of the fine). Distribution is punishable with up to 14 years in prison and/or a fine.

The decision to ban khat in the UK is expected to drastically hurt the Kenyan khat-farming sector, forcing “almost two million people out of jobs in Meru”. People of Somali, Kenya, and Ethiopian descent primarily use khat in Great Britain. Prohibiting the substance will not only damage the Kenyan economy, but will also force the British government to police the illicit trafficking of the substance, which will undoubtedly become an issue.

I’d like to focus this blog on the reasons behind the British government’s decision to ban khat. I think there are three possible reasons behind the act. Firstly, the British government thinks that khat presents a large enough health risk that it needs to be taken off the streets. Secondly, the government wants to prevent social harm associated with the drug. Thirdly, the government is acting in a racist manner and does not want to give its East African constituents the same rights it gives its other citizens.

The government, in its reasoning to ban the substance, has said that khat has numerous negative health affects, such as “insomnia, high blood pressure and constipation”. Members of parliament have also said that, because khat is illegal in the U.S. and many other European countries, they fear the U.K. becoming “a hub for the distribution of illegal khat” if it remained legal. The home affairs committee, however, has debunked the government’s health claims, saying that the decision “has not been taken on the basis of evidence or consultation”. I also think that the decision to ban a substance just because it is illegal elsewhere is completely irrational and shows the British government’s cowardice on the international arena.

When I was in Rwanda, from January to May of 2013, I tried khat and found its effects to be extremely mild. I would describe khat as somewhere between coffee and chewing tobacco, which I have also only tried once and did not enjoy at all! Chewing tobacco is, of course, legal in Great Britain and can be sold as long as it has a warning label. It seems to me that because khat is not the cultural accepted norm in Britain, its effects have been largely exaggerated. I also believe that the social problems that people associate with khat are actually due to the poorer conditions the East African communities in the U.K. are subject to, they are not the result of khat use.

From my own experience, khat is only slightly stronger than coffee. The difference between a chewer of tobacco and a chewer of khat seems to be cultural. The fact of the matter is that people of East African descent are more likely to chew khat, and in Great Britain and many other Western countries, their right to do so is unjustly impeded. Until the policymakers listen to experts and base their decisions on scientific evidence, laws such as this will continue to have racial undertones and will develop out of fear, as well as severely damaging the Kenyan farming sector.

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