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Ignoring Drug Advisors, Britain Bans Khat

In a written ministerial statement to Parliament last week. British Home Secretary Theresa May announced that her government was banning khat, a mild stimulant plant from the Horn of Africa widely used by people from the region, some of whom have emigrated to United Kingdom and other Western countries and brought their habit with them. In doing so, May went directly against the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), the public body charged with making recommendations on the control of drugs.

British Home Secretary Theresa May overrules her own drug advisors to ban khat. (gov.uk)
It's not the first time, either. The Home Office has rejected the science- and evidence-based recommendations of the ACMD on at least two other occasions in recent years, on the scheduling of marijuana and ecstasy. Instead, it has taken a more politically popular "tough on drugs" line, ignoring its own experts.

In its report on the potential harms of khat in January, responding to a Home Office request for a review, the ACMD concluded that "khat should not be controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971" because "the ACMD considers that the evidence of harms associated with the use of khat is insufficient to justify control and it would be inappropriate and disproportionate to classify khat under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971." The harm from khat "does not reach the level required for classification," the experts determined.

The ACMD found that "the evidence shows that khat has no direct causal links to adverse medical effects" other than a small number of reports about an association between its use and liver toxicity. While there were some "adverse outcomes" associated with khat use, those outcomes are the result of  "a complex interaction of khat with other factors... but not directly caused by khat use."

But, while noting the AMCD's considered recommendation, May decided to ignore it.

"The AMCD report gives considerable insight into the complexity of this matter and, based on the available evidence, it came to a reasonable conclusion in its recommendations to the government," she wrote. "There are broader factors for the government to consider in making its decision. The decision to bring khat under control is finely balanced and takes into account the expert scientific advice and these broader concerns."

Those broader concerns included pressure from other northern European countries with large East African emigrant populations that have already banned khat, pressure from community health workers who say that khat use contributes to social problems such as family breakdown and unemployment, and pressure from emigrant women, who say their husbands spend too much time and money chewing the stimulant plant.

May's reasons weren't good enough for Professor David Nutt, the former head of the ACMD, who was forced out after repeated clashes with ministers over their refusing to heed the body's recommendations. Nutt is now the chair of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, which issued its own report on khat.

"Banning khat shows contempt for reason and evidence, disregard for the sincere efforts of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs," Nutt said. He urged the government "to abandon plans to ban khat and to accept in full the ACMD's evidence-led recommendations of how the relatively low harms associated with this drug could be minimized."

But no. The ban on khat in Britain will go into effect within a few weeks, May said.

United Kingdom

Looming Dutch Khat Ban Draws Criticism, Complaints

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.

Yemeni chewing khat, 2009 (wikimedia.org)
The proposed khat ban is of a piece with the center-right government's moves to restrict access to Holland's famed cannabis coffee shops -- it plans to ban foreigners from some border coffee shops as early as next month -- and its decision to treat hashish as a hard drug.

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."

Netherlands

Dutch to Ban Khat

In keeping with the regressive turn Dutch drug policy has taken under its conservative coalition government, the Dutch government said Tuesday it will ban khat, a plant used by people from the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula for its mild stimulant properties.

Man chewing khat, Sanaa, Yemen, 2009 (wikimedia.org)
"Health Minister (Edith) Schippers will soon place khat on list II of the opium law. This will make possession and trade in khat illegal," said a joint statement from the Dutch interior affairs, security and justice and health ministries.

The ban is designed to serve a dual purpose for the Dutch. First, it is aimed at reducing domestic khat consumption, mainly among Ethiopian and Yemeni immigrants. Dutch officials said social problems, including high unemployment in the Somali community, prompted the ban, although it's not clear how banning khat will boost the jobs picture for immigrants.

They also cited longstanding pressures from other European countries to clamp down on the khat trade. The ban is thus also designed to stop the use of Amsterdam's Schipol Airport as a key hub for khat destined for other European countries where it is already illegal, including Denmark, Germany, and Sweden. (Khat is also banned in the US and Canada.)

The Dutch said that more than 800 tons of khat were imported into the Netherlands last year, 80% of which was exported to other European countries.

Swedish police welcomed the Dutch action, saying they suspected profits from the trade were going to finance militants like Al Shabaab in Somalia. Swedish police estimate that 200 tons of khat are smuggled into the country each year.

"Smuggling to Scandinavia is quite substantial... we catch smugglers on the Swedish border several times a week, though probably 9 in 10 transports get through," Stefan Kalman of the Swedish police drug squad told Reuters. "This ban means a huge change for us. I expect the numbers to go down now, as smuggling becomes more difficult," he added.

The Dutch khat ban is in line with the government's crackdown on the sale of marijuana and hashish. The number of cannabis coffee shops there is declining, and a ban on foreigners in coffee shops is set to begin going into effect this year.

Amsterdam
Netherlands

Europe: Britain to Ban Mephedrone in Two Weeks, Imports Already Blocked

British Home Minister Alan Johnson told parliament on Tuesday that the government will seek to ban the synthetic stimulant mephedrone by April 16. The announcement comes after the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) recommended last Friday that the drug be placed under the purview of the Misuse of Drugs Act.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/mephedrone.jpg
mephedrone
"As a result of the council's swift advice, I am introducing legislation to ban not just mephedrone and other cathinones but also to enshrine in law a generic definition so that, as with synthetic cannabinoids, we can be in the forefront of dealing with this whole family of drugs," Johnson told parliament. "This will stop unscrupulous manufacturers and others peddling different but similarly harmful drugs."

The ACMD called for mephedrone to be scheduled as a Class B drug, with penalties of up to five years in prison for possession and 14 years for sales. Other Class B drugs include marijuana, amphetamines, and Ritalin.

Johnson also announced an immediate ban on the importation of the drug. It had been imported to Great Britain for sale as a plant fertilizer.

Mephedrone is derived from cathinone, the psychoactive ingredient in khat, the herb chewed in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Khat produces a mild euphoric high similar to that from a couple of cups of expresso, but users have likened mephedrone's effects to those of cocaine or ecstasy. It has exploded in popularity in Britain in the past year, where it is known under a number of nicknames, including M-Cat and meow meow.

About two dozen deaths where mephedrone use was implicated have been reported so far in Britain, but it is unclear whether mephedrone itself caused any of those deaths. But that hasn't stopped prohibitionists from responding as they do to any new drug: Ban it!

That response doesn't sit well with former ACMD head Professor David Nutt, who was sacked last year following repeated criticism of the government for ignoring the group's recommendations and favoring politics over science in making drug policy. In an interview with the Evening Standard, Nutt called for "some sort of regulated use for MDMA or mephedrone where people, maybe in clubs, could have access to small amounts, safe amounts under guidance".

Such a policy would "probably be safer than what we're doing at the moment," he said. "For me, as a father with four children, aged 18 to 26, the drug that I know could kill my kids is alcohol. It is the drug that has caused the most damage to my kids' generation," he explained.

Nutt also criticized the ACMD for jumping on the ban bandwagon. "The ACMD could say that one confirmed death is enough evidence to make mephedrone a controlled drug, or they could say they believe in the precautionary principle, but neither of those is scientific and if they do go down that route then they will have lost scientific credibility. It is an open question whether mephedrone is more or less harmful than MDMA. We really don't know, but I would say that they are probably similar," Nutt added.

Meanwhile, street dealers are stocking up on meow meow in anticipation of price increases under the looming prohibition regime.

Europe: England to Ban Methedrone? Nutt Says Not So Fast

Pressure to ban the "legal high" mephedrone is rising in the United Kingdom, especially since it was linked to the deaths of two teenagers on Sunday. But the former head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) is urging the government to move with caution, and perhaps to create a new drug classification for new drugs whose effects and dangers are not well understood.

Mephedrone is an amphetamine-type stimulant derived from cathinone, the active ingredient found in khat. When chewed, as is the custom in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, khat delivers a mild stimulant buzz that has been likened to drinking a cup of coffee or strong tea. But mephedrone, which has exploded in popularity in the last year or so in Great Britain, delivers a high that users liken to ecstasy or cocaine.

Known as M-Cat and meow-meow, among other nicknames, mephedrone is reportedly becoming a favorite alternative to ecstasy on the British club scene. It is available online and in head shops in tablet, powder, or liquid form, with a dose running between $20 and $30. It has been linked to three deaths, including the two on Sunday, but it is not clear that any of those deaths were directly caused by mephedrone.

The 18- and 19-year-old men who died on Sunday, for instance, ingested alcohol and methadone, as well as mephedrone, during a night of clubbing. And the cause of death for a 14-year-old girl who died last year after taking mephedrone was listed as bronchial pneumonia, not mephedrone overdose.

According to the British newspaper The Guardian, Home Office drugs minister Alan Campbell has said he will move to take "immediate action" after receiving advice from the ACMD at the end of the month. The ACMD already has mephedrone on its radar, having held an evidence-gathering meeting on the drug on February 22.

Campbell spoke amidst a rising clamor for an immediate ban from anti-drug campaigners and school head teachers. Campbell insisted that the Home Office was ready to "act swiftly," but not too swiftly. "It is important we consider independent expert advice to stop organized criminals exploiting loopholes by simply switching to a different but similar compound."

But former ACMD head David Nutt, who was sacked last year after repeatedly criticizing the government for valuing politics over science and evidence in its drug scheduling decisions, said mephedrone should stay legal for now and that Britain should consider adding a new category to its drug scheduling scheme.

"To make it illegal without proper evidence of harm would be wrong and might have unwanted consequences, such as a switch to more dangerous drugs or alcohol," Nutt said. There is an alternative, he added. "One approach would be a new class in the Misuse of Drugs Act -- the class D model, adopted in New Zealand to deal with BZP. This is a holding category where drugs can be put in place before they are well understood: sales are limited to over-18s; the product is quality-controlled so users know what they are getting; and it comes with health education messages."

Knowing the Labor government and its record when it comes to drug scheduling, however, chances are that mephedrone will be banned by summer.

What's Next, Criminalizing Coffee?

You Can Make a Difference

 

Dear friends,

Right now the DC Council is considering wasting time and money on criminalizing a substance called khat.

Khat has effects similar to a cup of coffee. Tell them that criminalizing khat is wasteful and unnecessary!

Take Action Button (new)
Email the DC Council

What if you woke up one morning and suddenly your daily cup of coffee was illegal?

It probably sounds like a joke, but don't be too sure.

Even as the rest of the country is beginning to rethink its drug policies, DC is considering a bill that would take the drug war to an even more ridiculous extreme.

Right now, the DC council is considering pouring countless hours and your tax-payer dollars into banning a substance that has effects similar to a cup of coffee.

For thousands of years, East African communities have carried on the custom of chewing or making tea with a plant called khat. There is no good reason for the Council to single out this one community by banning a harmless plant that comes from their home country.

This ban is a mistake, but today you can do something to stop it: Write to the DC Council today and urge them to stop the prohibition of khat.

This ban is up for a discussion on June 30, so your letter now could make all the difference.

In just a few minutes, you can help defend our local communities from needless harassment and discrimination. Thank you for joining us in this fight!

Sincerely,

Naomi Long
Director, DC Metro Project
Drug Policy Alliance Network

 

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Khat is a Harmless Plant. So Why is D.C. Trying to Prohibit it?

As if we don’t already have enough crime problems to worry about here in the Nation's Capital, the D.C. City Council is trying to create one out of thin air. As we reported in Friday's Drug War Chronicle:

Last fall, at the urging of DC US Attorney Jeffrey Taylor, Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) introduced a proposal to criminalize fresh khat as a Schedule I drug, as it is under federal law. The DC City council is currently considering the proposal as part of its 2009 Omnibus Crime Bill and is likely to act on the measure before its session ends July 15.

Khat use is such a total non-problem that many people don't even know what it is, thus I should probably explain that khat is a mild stimulant used similarly to coffee in parts of East Africa. It isn't dangerous or particularly popular in the U.S., so the drug's prohibition under federal law can be attributed almost entirely to ignorance and racism. Seriously, the arguments against khat are so weak and sparse that law enforcement officials have resorted to the factually-vacant implication that khat might be funding terrorism.

Tragically, the D.C. City Council has thus far failed to grasp the absurdity of all this and will be banning khat entirely within a matter of weeks if we don't stop them. If you live in D.C. please click here to tell the council that prohibiting khat doesn’t make sense.

Feature: DC Moves Toward Stricter Penalties for Khat

For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, residents of the Horn of Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula have partaken of khat, an evergreen plant native to the region. When the fresh leaves of the plant are chewed, they produce a mild stimulating effect. Friends of the plant liken the high to the buzz achieved from drinking strong coffee; foes, typically in law enforcement, are more apt to liken it to an amphetamine high.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/khatcontainer.jpg
khat wrapped in banana leaves and smuggled in suitcase (usdoj.gov)
But with decades of war and internal strife in the late 20th Century, an East African diaspora occurred, with Ethiopians and Somalis scattering and creating new immigrant population centers across Europe, Australia, Canada, and the US. Not surprisingly, these emigrants brought with them their khat chewing habit.

Khat is not illegal under international law, although two of its active compounds are. Cathinone, the more powerful, is a Schedule I drug under the 1988 UN Convention on Psychotropic Drugs, while cathine, the less powerful, is Schedule IV. Cathinone is found only in fresh leaf, degrading rapidly once the plant is harvested.

With growing awareness of khat in recent years, a number of countries, including the US, have banned the plant. Here, fresh khat containing cathinone is a Schedule I controlled substance, the same schedule as heroin or LSD. Degraded khat containing only cathine is a Schedule IV controlled substance, like Valium, Librium, or Rohypnol.

Alongside the federal government, 28 states have criminalized khat. Washington, DC, home to one of the nation's largest East African communities, is not among them -- yet. Under current DC law, cathinone is not a controlled substance and people caught in possession of fresh khat face no local penalties. Oddly enough, the less powerful alkaloid cathine is a controlled substance under DC law, and possession with intent to manufacture or distribute carries a prison sentence of up to three years.

Last fall, at the urging of DC US Attorney Jeffrey Taylor, Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) introduced a proposal to criminalize fresh khat as a Schedule I drug, as it is under federal law. The DC City council is currently considering the proposal as part of its 2009 Omnibus Crime Bill and is likely to act on the measure before its session ends July 15.

"It's sad that they want to put the resources of crime fighting against individuals from a different culture who don't have anybody except their community and try to punish them for doing what they have always done," said Abdul Aziz Kamus of the DC-based African Resource Center. "It seems like DC wants to punish hard-working immigrant taxi drivers who are law-abiding citizens."

Kamus related the tale of an immigrant taxi driver who sought help from his office a few months ago. "This guy was a father of four, and he was terrified because they caught him buying khat and he had to go to court," he said. "He said: 'I didn't commit any crime, I bought this leaf to chew while I work 16 hours to support my family.' Why should the government want to punish him?"

Good question. The answer appears to be a combination of reflexive prohibitionist responses to new drug challenges, concerns about the impact of khat use on family life among elements of the East African community, and so far unsubstantiated fears that profits from the khat trade may be flowing into the hands of Al Qaeda-linked Islamic radicals in Yemen and Somalia.

"Law enforcement has intercepted fresh khat coming into the city, and it made sense to change the statute to reflect the more serious drug," Assistant US Attorney Patricia Riley told the Washington Times when the measure was introduced last fall. District law should be consistent with federal law, she said, adding that the potency of cathinone warranted the schedule bump.

DC Metro Police Detective Lorenzo James, who works narcotics and special investigations, told the Times that while he had not been able to develop evidence of khat profits funding terrorists, he was still suspicious. Khat traders in DC are using hawalas, or informal money transfer systems common to South Asia and the Middle East that have been tied to terrorists in the past, James said. "The money is not being kept here," he said.

Detective James was all for toughening the khat laws. "Why lock them up when you get a slap on the wrist for a schedule IV that the attorney's office does not want to prosecute?" he said. "I can tell you when you get it to a Schedule I, a lot of things are going to change."

Those reasons are not good enough for opponents of the measure, who are mobilizing to block it. Various groups and individuals have submitted testimony in a bid to kill it in the council's Judiciary Committee.

"We've learned from past examples that prohibiting a drug doesn't necessarily change use patterns; it just ensures that more folks go to jail or prison," said Naomi Long of the Drug Policy Alliance DC Metro program. "The primary users of khat are the East African community, and the people who would be impacted would be people from the East African community, who used it in their home countries much as we consume coffee here," she added.

"There is no evidence that recreational use is spreading among non-East Africans," said Long. "The use is based in the East African culture, and the idea that we have to clamp down on it to prevent its spread when it's not spreading is just silly," she added, deflating one argument for increased criminalization of the plant.

Long also challenged the alleged terrorist connection. "I don't think there has been any documented direct link showing a connection between khat users in the US and funding terrorism," she said. "We need to take a thoughtful approach to how we criminalize drugs here, given past experience."

"The federal government is talking about whether terrorist organizations are using the khat trade for cash money," noted Kamus. "If they are really worried about that, they should make it legal and regulate it and tax the people who sell it."

Kamus added another point. "It is the terrorist link they are talking about. They are not trying to say it causes crime or violence. It doesn't."

But that's not stopping the push to more deeply criminalize the plant. Taxi drivers' wake-me-up or terrorist drug threat? If we leave it up to the law enforcers and their cronies in government, we know what the answer will be.

Charges in khat case dropped

Location: 
Seattle, WA
United States
Publication/Source: 
The Seattle Times
URL: 
http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2003753377_khat19m.html

Khat: Feds Arrest 62 in Crackdown on Mild East African Stimulant Herb

Khat, a shrub that grows in East Africa, has been used for centuries as a mild stimulant in the region, with a high similar to that obtained by drinking a lot of tea or coffee. Khat is legal thoughout Africa and most European countries, but US federal authorities consider it a dangerous drug. They struck Wednesday, arresting 62 East African immigrants on charges they smuggled more than 25 tons of the stuff into the United States.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/khatinvietnam.jpg
family khat use scene, Vietnam
Federal officials told reporters Wednesday they are investigating reports the khat smugglers may be linked to "war lords" in Somalia and Ethiopia, but they have not produced any proof of that, nor do any of the indictments allege any links to terrorist activities in the region, where Islamic extremism is on the march. Muslim fundamentalists linked to Al-Qaida are battling Western-backed "war lords" for control of Somalia.

"It is suspected that there are ties to some type of terrorist organizations," a federal agent demanding anonymity told the McClatchy Newspaper chain. While the indictments do not allege terror links, they do charge the group laundered money through hawalas, an informal network of remittances widely used in South Asia and the Middle East. Some of the money ended up in the Middle East financial capital Dubai, the indictments allege.

FBI Assistant Director Mark Mershon told a New York news conference Wednesday that the agency continues to seek "the ultimate destiny of the funds." According to Mershon, intelligence suggests the money was headed for "countries in East Africa which are a hotbed for Sunni extremism and a wellspring for terrorists associated with Al-Qaida."

Hmmm…They are also the countries from which those arrested hail and where khat is widely grown. Meanwhile, the man charged as ringleader for the group faces up to life in prison and the others face up to 20 years for using and dealing in an herb with which they grew up.

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