Controversial drug ban splits UK communities

Bundle of trouble: The plant at the root of the controversy © PA

Chewing on the high-inducing khat plant has been a part of Somali, Ethiopian and Yemeni culture for millennia, but the UK government has now banned it on health grounds. Is the ban right?

Someone casually strolling through an area of London with a Somali, Ethiopian or a Yemeni population might stumble upon an unusual sight: cafes full of people chewing plants. They probably would not realise they are witnessing a tradition that dates back thousands of years.

Khat (pronounced ‘cot’) is an innocuous-looking plant that grows in East Africa and the Arabian peninsula. If chewed for hours, it can produce feelings of alertness, energy and a mild high. Known to some as ‘tea of the Arabs’, khat is a central part of these regions’ cultures and immigrants have now brought it to the UK.

Over 2,500 tonnes of the substance was imported in 2011, bringing the government around £3m in tax. The booming industry has also given work to 500,000 farmers in the Horn of Africa.

Yet khat cafes will soon be a thing of the past. Some doctors think the drug may be linked to mental health problems and Somalis say many in their community have had their lives ruined through addiction. The UK government has just made it a class C drug, with those caught possessing it facing up to 14 years in prison.

Many drug groups are disappointed by the ban. A WHO report notes that while khat is addictive, it is less so than alcohol and tobacco, which are used much more widely. A government medical report says that beyond ‘contradictory and anecdotal statements’ from users, no credible evidence suggests the drug is dangerous.

The ban will also be difficult to enforce. Police have been advised to adopt a ‘three strike’ policy. A person found with khat once will be given a warning. If they are caught a second time they will receive a £60 fine, and on the third occasion they could be arrested.

Yet keeping track of the strikes will not be easy. And if a suspect simply eats the khat, the police will have no evidence.

Khat-consuming communities are torn. Some say this is a needless attack on their culture, while others believe the ban will help people overcome their reliance on the drug. Who is right?

Chewing it over

Opponents of the ban argue that the government should not criminalise a drug if experts say there is not enough evidence to suggest it is truly harmful. The UK made money by taxing khat, but now it is attacking a culture and driving distribution into the hands of drug dealers. While the world contemplates new strategies for the war on drugs, banning khat is a step backwards.

Others point out that many campaigners in favour of the ban come from the communities most affected – people who know about the dangers. The government has a duty to protect the health of its people, even if the risk is slight. Khat is already banned in much of Europe; the UK is right to follow suit.

You Decide

  1. Should the government ban drugs like khat which are potentially dangerous?
  2. ‘If the government thinks khat should be banned, it should also ban alcohol and cigarettes.’ Do you agree?


  1. Form groups. You are the government and you are responsible for which drugs are legal and which are illegal. Draw up a guideline of how you would decide which drugs, if any, should be banned.
  2. Using the links in Become An Expert, come up with a list of the arguments for and against banning khat. Then write to your MP arguing for or against the ban.

Some People Say...

“That government is best which governs least.’Henry David Thoreau”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’ve never even heard of khat.
That is because it is primarily used in immigrant communities which are small. Government figures suggest there are 215,000 Somali-born residents in the UK, 20,000 Ethiopians and 70-80,000 Yemenis; the entire UK population is 63m. However, the central issue here is whether the government should interfere in something when experts say there is not a clear case for doing so.
Is khat really dangerous?
Medical experts say it is difficult to tell because the group of people affected is so small, making evidence difficult to come by. But NHS data for 2011-12 shows 112 people who started drug treatment had past involvement with khat. Cathinone and cathine, the active chemicals in khat, are already banned after they started appearing in legal highs in 2012.

Word Watch

Horn of Africa
The peninsula in North Africa which juts out into the Arabian Sea, where Ethiopia and Somalia are located.
The World Health Organisation is the UN’s public health division. It collects and publishes information on the world’s leading health issues.
Once the khat is reduced to a mushy pulp, it will be very difficult for police to identify it. Police will also have to be taught how to distinguish khat from other herbs in the first place.
War on drugs
For decades the world, led by the US, has been trying to fight drugs by making them illegal and punishing those who use and supply them. But in recent years, the countries which have been worst affected by the ‘war’, mainly those in South and Central America, have said that this approach has only brought more crime and it is time to try something new. The legalisation on cannabis in certain states of the US is a reflection of changing attitudes towards drugs.
The US has also banned the drug. A UN report says that the UK had become a hub for smuggling khat into other countries where it is illegal.

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