Confessions of an English khat-chewer

Why has a pastime enjoyed by many been transformed into a crime?

I had always wondered how it would feel to have something I loved criminalised. From hunting to smoking in pubs, I’ve seen other people go through it. This week, finally, my turn came.

Just to give you some background: I’m not one used to flouting laws or even living the sort of hedonistic lifestyle of which the state disapproves. I’ve never taken illegal drugs before, and I don’t smoke or drink to excess. I’m an accountant, for God’s sake - a Tory-voting accountant, but an accountant who recently spent a year living in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. While I was there, I discovered something that gave me great joy: khat.

Everyone is a khat connoisseur in Yemen, from the most reviled butcher to the president himself. The expectation was palpable on a Thursday when it had just been raining and the trucks poured into the city bearing the tenderest shoots from every wadi (a usually dry riverbed) for miles around. If you were lucky, on such a day you’d get your hands on a bag of Hamdani – the 2010 Château d’Yquem of Yemeni khat – for 1,500 riyals, which is roughly a fiver. You would take this plastic bag to a friend’s house. You’d be invited into his mafraj, his guest room, where the entire social spectrum reclined on cushions in a circle. A government minister would be discussing religion with a newly recruited soldier. Fervent supporters of the president would be quietly debating politics with die-hard Houthi rebels, and everyone would have their cheek inflated to the size of a tennis ball with a mush of green leaves.

What does it feel like? There has been a lot of mediocre journalism on this over the past year or so. It is not a hallucinogen. It’s barely even an amphetamine, although your senses are slightly heightened. The various friends I’ve invited to my London flat for a chew have in fact been slightly unimpressed, used, as they are, to harder things like alcohol, but I believe it’s worth the wait. After an hour or two, you start to feel a little more relaxed and at ease with the world. You start to think, to talk earnestly about what you believe and, more importantly, to listen to what other people have to say. That’s about it, and another three or four hours later you empty your cheek and go to bed.

On my return from Yemen, I found that I could get hold of khat across London, from Paddington to Whitechapel. The UK enjoys one of the world’s highest concentrations of Yemeni, Somali and Ethiopian migrants, and these welcoming communities had built an efficient logistics organisation that was able to fly high-quality khat from Ethiopia to London to sell to me for £6 a bag within 48 hours of it being picked.

That was the case until this week, when UK home secretary Theresa May banned it. This was against the findings of two recent investigations into the leaf’s effects, conducted by the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. And it came at a time when the rest of the world, from Uruguay to the USA, is starting to reconsider the ‘war on drugs’, and when the ease of synthesising new highs and then selling them on the internet has rendered traditional anti-drugs policies ineffective. I still cannot see a reason for the decision beyond a distastefully paternalistic orientalism, mixed with a desire to criminalise our own population to make the drug policies of some European neighbours slightly more effective. Perhaps the government believes that British Yemenis will be better off drinking in a (smoke-free) pub.

I shall continue to buy khat, though, and I shall continue to chew it. Obviously, it will now be more expensive, since it needs to be smuggled into the country. It will be lower quality, too, and the money I pay will probably go to dubious middlemen rather than the Kenyan and Ethiopian farmers who used to be the ultimate beneficiaries of my custom.

Worst of all, though, I will be a criminal. For an innocent man enjoying an innocent pastime, this hurts.

David Williams lives in London.

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