The Dutch conservative coalition government has signaled since January that it intended to prohibit khat, the mild stimulant plant from the Horn of Africa, and now, indications are that the ban will happen soon. But the move is drawing heat from critics who charge it is based more on political considerations than hard science.
In Holland, which has seen increasing tension around issues of immigration and assimilation, khat is used almost exclusively by the Somali immigrant community. The center-right government has argued that khat use impedes Somalis' integration into Dutch society and that 10% of the Somali community is addicted to it.
A proposal to prohibit khat awaits only a discussion -- no vote needed -- in parliament before it becomes law. While drug policy is typically handled by the Dutch justice and health ministries, the khat ban is the initiative of migration and asylum affairs Minister Gerd Leers.
"I'm involved in the ban because it appears to cause serious problems, particularly in the Somali community," he told Dutch radio in January. "They are lethargic and refuse to cooperate with the government or take responsibility for themselves or their families."
But according to the United Arab Emirates newspaper the National, scientists disagree with Leers about khat's impact and danger, and the Somali community, while cognizant of problems associated with khat use, sees the move as immigrant bashing.
"There is a sense that it may be more symbolic for political reasons rather than aimed at improving our situation," said Mohamed Elmi of FSAN, the umbrella organization of Somali associations. "You can regulate or register or you can handle the problems with distribution in another way," he said. "The Somali community has many problems that need to be tackled and I don't see them doing anything about those."
Elmi scoffed at the government's assertion that 10% of the 25,000 Somalis in the country have a khat problem, saying the number of khat users is half that and "only a handful" are problem users.
Researchers at the Netherlands Institute for Mental Health and Addiction backed Elmi's stand. They studied khat use for the government and reported the number of problem khat users as several hundred, but added that in many of those cases, in was khat in combination with hard drugs or alcohol to blame.
"We made very different recommendations based on our study," said study coauthor Clary van der Veen. "The large group of social users is not a problem. You may need to inform them better and point out the long-term effect, just like with smoking and drinking," she said. She also questioned whether a ban on khat would truly help the integration of Somali immigrants. "In countries where khat has been banned, the integration of Somalis is not faring better," she said.
The government's ban is also drawing criticism from the former head of the Dutch police union, Hans van Duijn, who has become a prominent critic of both the Dutch government's "lurch to the right" and the war on drugs. That the idea of the ban is to help integrate Somalis was "nonsense," he said, as were government claims it was responding to pressure from other European countries where khat is illegal.
"They are using a lot of misleading arguments, such as recently when the center-right argued for a ban on the sale of hashish because it was said to benefit North-African criminal gangs and the Taliban. As if by banning the sale of hashish in Dutch coffee shops this would end," he said.
And prohibition never works, anyway, van Duijn noted. "The dealers will try hard to find a solution because they now stand to make more money, which will not benefit the user. It is a mystery to me what the benefits are."