Last month, UK home secretary Theresa May confirmed that the government will ban the drug khat (through an amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act). In the run up to the ban, this rather marginal drug has unsurprisingly hit the headlines in the UK. But what precisely is khat?
Well, it’s a plant. The leaves have been chewed for thousands of years as a natural stimulant in eastern Africa and some parts of the Arabian peninsula, especially in Yemen. For some, chewing khat is like having a strong coffee, for other it’s like a form of herbal Red Bull. It’s possible to have a dependence on khat, but no more than one can have a dependence on caffeine.
So why all the fuss about a mild drug? And why do all the major parties, aside from the Liberal Democrats, feel comfortable creating a new class of criminal purely because the newly criminalised prefer chewing the leaves of a plant to necking a strong espresso? Is this a form of disguised xenophobia, given that it is predominantly east African and Arab communities which use the drug, or is it just motored by plain ignorance of the drug and its effects? Who knows.
What is clear is that banning khat would have disastrous consequences. As with all forms of prohibition, the ban will inevitably create a black market for the plant, with all the criminality that implies. At a time in which people have declared the war on drugs a failure, the war on khat seems all the more ridiculous.