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When the khat’s away: should this herbal stimulant really be made illegal tomorrow?

Posted at 2:30 pm, June 23, 2014 in News
Abdilatif and Eddy discuss khat. Photo: Rob Greig

Khat, the leaves of an Arabian shrub chewed as a mild stimulant, is being banned in the UK  tomorrow. Eddy Frankel tries it before it becomes off-limits, and finds an issue that’s dividing one of this city’s communities.

I’m not a drug guy – at least when it comes to the illegal variety. I just get along better with a warm can of Carlsberg than a bong-load of Moroccan reefer. But here I am, pacing around Dalston’s Gillett Square in the rain, waiting to get my hands on a bundle of khat – a natural, mild stimulant from East Africa – before it’s officially outlawed in two months. At least it’s not heroin, Mum.

Earlier this year, Parliament voted to criminalise the buying, selling and chewing of khat from July. This despite the fact the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has stated that a ban would be ‘inappropriate and disproportionate’. So I’m here to try khat for myself, and talk to the people who use it about what the ban will mean for them.

I’ve come to a ‘mafrish’ (khat house) in the corner of Gillett Square by the Vortex jazz club. It’s closed, but a man sat on a stool outside assures me that the owner will be back in five minutes. His lips are covered in splatters of green flecks. At first I think it’s pesto, but eventually it clicks that getting high on stir-through Italian sauces isn’t a thing and I soon realise that he’s actually chewing khat.

The five-minute wait turns into nearly three hours spent stood in the rain alongside a growing group of Somali and Ethiopian men, before a man called Abdilatif finally arrives and creaks open the shutters of his shop. I’m not invited to enter, but a group of men continue to chat with me outside, sheltering from the rain under an awning. ‘Khat is so important to Somali, Yemeni, Kenyan and Ethiopian communities,’ Abdilatif tells me, as everyone around him unwraps parcels of khat and starts chewing and chatting. Abdilatif was educated in Denmark and came to England to work as an engineer for a major telecoms company. When he was made redundant, he decided to open this mafrish, partly as a business venture, but also to help his fellow immigrants. ‘Everyone chews khat,’ he explains. ‘There’s even a doctor and a lawyer chewing inside. You have to understand we don’t use khat as a drug. We use it as a way to bring us together.’

For the men who gather here, khat provides a sanctuary, an escape from the pressures of immigrant life in London. ‘Most people who come here are depressed,’ says Markos, who runs the Kaffa Coffee shop a few doors down. ‘There’s a lack of jobs, a language barrier and a culture clash. Abdilatif helps so many people every day. Where are they going to go if khat is banned?’ Abdilatif has his own alarmist answer to that. ‘The Conservatives closed community centres; if they close the mafrish, the only places left will be religious centres and that will lead to extremism.’

Later I speak to David Anderson, a professor of African history at Warwick University and a member of the committee that advised the government not to ban khat. He speculates as to why he thinks Home Secretary Theresa May chose to ignore their findings. ‘I think they may have come under pressure from America in order to stem khat’s supposed links to extremist organisations in Africa, though that shows how little they really understand the drug,’ he says, pointing out that its export from Kenya and Yemen (which brings in almost £3m in import duty to the UK each year) has almost no links to Somalia or its extremist groups. But he also highlights that May was under pressure from Somali women’s groups because of the social impact of khat, which they feel tears their families apart due to the time and money men spend at the mafrish.

A Home Office spokesperson explains that it wasn’t just Somali women campaigning for the ban: ‘The government’s extensive consultation found that the majority of the Somali community were in favour of a ban and many Somali community leaders have directly raised concerns about the impact of khat abuse. We have listened to these concerns and the legislation banning this substance will come into effect at the earliest opportunity.’ Brit-Somali Abukar Awale is a leading anti-khat campaigner and speaks with evangelical zeal about the dangers of the drug. ‘I am a former addict,’ he tells me. ‘When I came to this country I started chewing khat because there were no jobs and I was far from home. But it stopped me from learning English, it kept me totally isolated.’ Khat, in the eyes of people like him, is a divider – holding back recent immigrants from integrating and assimilating into British society. ‘Somali women hate this drug,’ he says. ‘If you could see behind the curtain, see the domestic violence, the absent fathers, the money taken from the family for khat, you would see the damage it has caused.’

But David Anderson sees a parallel between the mafrish and the pub. Yes, it takes men away from the home and it has its downsides, but it’s the same impact that the pub has in deprived parts of Britain, ‘And you wouldn’t ban the pub, would you?’ he says. Anderson also sees no justifiable scientific reasoning behind the ban: ‘We looked at khat scientifically and found that there were negligible harms. It’s habitual, and there’s no scientific proof that it’s addictive.’  The difference in attitudes here is pretty startling. On the one hand you have Abukar Awale, who has ambitions of becoming a Conservative councillor, saying ‘I am over the moon the ban is happening. God bless Theresa May, she has saved our community. The Conservative government is protecting immigrant communities.’ And on the other hand you have Markos from the coffee shop who thinks that ‘The government is saying go home: that they don’t need us or want us.’ Earlier at the mafrish I ask Abdilatif about the effects of khat, if he thought that might be why the government has decided to criminalise it. ‘It makes you active,’ he replies. ‘It makes you talk, it’s like a strong dose of caffeine, that’s all.’

Before leaving, I buy a couple of bundles of khat at £3 a pop. Sat alone at my kitchen table, I unwrap the parcels and start gnawing through the twigs while listening to Black Sabbath, because if anyone can help me take drugs it’s Ozzy. I manage about 30 minutes of chewing before the bitterness gets too much for me and I reach for a warm Carlsberg. I can’t get through enough khat to feel a buzz. The taste is too unpleasant, and I just feel like some trustafarian hippy moron. The ban won’t change my life, but it will affect the lives of London’s East Africans, one way or another. It also won’t stop people using the drug, it will just push it underground, so, really, your stance on whether or not khat should be banned is defined by your approach to drug policy in general. Either way, this is one khat that’s finally run out of lives.

By Eddy Frankel

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