In a few days the 60 year old legal importation into the UK of the stimulant substance known widely as khat will be brought to an end, as the substance is added to Class C of the Misuse of Drugs Act. While its earliest importation was of relatively small quantities sold in Yemeni parts of British cities, the rise of the Somali population in the 1990s and 2000s had increased its importation greatly: demand among this new population spurred the import of around 56 tonnes per week of the commodity at its recent height, mostly coming from Kenya.
As well as increasing demand, Somalis brought great ambivalence to the substance. This ambivalence is nothing new, but it has been heightened in the diaspora, especially through perceived injustice at khat remaining legal in the UK, while substances such as mephedrone are swiftly banned. Khat’s illegality elsewhere in Europe and North America has also fed resentment at its legality in the UK, as the argument “˜surely if it is illegal elsewhere it must be bad’ took hold (though in fact prohibitions in these other countries were not based on any research into its harms).
However, perhaps more than the substance itself, what has damned it to illegality has been the institution of the mafrish, the venue where it is consumed and where some chewers spend much time. For many UK Somalis, spending hours in a mafrish appears incompatible with a moral duty to work hard in the diaspora, and to help rebuild Somali society after decades of war. The khat ban is especially interesting in this regard: a substance banned not on medical grounds, but to stop consumers spending time away from families and work.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the impending ban – and these will no doubt be long debated – it will be upon us soon, and it is likely to have all sorts of ramifications both in the UK and back in producing countries. Indeed, the very anticipation of the ban has already had an impact, especially given tense political relations between Kenya and the West, and Kenya and its Somali population. Many in Kenya see the khat ban through the prism of perceived British injustices against the country, especially in the form of recent travel advisories; while some Somalis view it positively as a blow against Kenya, a country so associated with the recent screenings and mass detention of Somalis. The khat ban reflects and affects much wider political tensions.
In the UK there will be a significant reduction in the quantity of khat imported, as it will scarcely be possible to smuggle the same volume into the country. However, smuggling will become too lucrative to be resisted for long. Once the dust has settled, it is likely that couriers bringing in suitcases full of khat bundles will arrive – most likely via tortuous routes – at British airports, just as they do in the USA and Scandinavia. Also, DHL and other postal services will be used to transport small consignments. While khat bundles are bulky to smuggle, the overworked UKBA and police are unlikely to prevent most consignments getting through.
Making their job even harder will be a probable shift away from fresh khat to dried leaves known as graba, which are much easier to smuggle given their storability. Its potency is most likely lower than fresh khat (though scientific reports on this are mixed), but there is demand for it in countries where khat is already prohibited. Khat will still most likely reach other countries in Europe and North America, although other hubs will probably emerge to serve them: the well known balloon effect, where when one smuggling hub is squeezed another grows, is likely to hold true for khat.
As for consumers, moderate chewers may well give up the substance in the UK once it is illegal, perhaps saving it for visits back to Somalia or Kenya. For the qodhadhi (the term for the most hard core chewers), the higher prices of smuggled khat will most likely not put them off, certainly if the history of khat (and other drug) illegality is anything to go by, and more hidden mafrish will serve them. What will be interesting to track will be the reaction amongst Yemeni and Oromo consumers in the UK. Khat might continue to be chewed in defiance and as an act of resistance: the narrative of khat being a part of their tradition is stronger amongst them than amongst Somalis, and might be used as a “˜cultural defence’ in cases of arrest.
In all this, there is the danger that the khat ban might lead to ethnic targeting and “˜stop and search’ of Somalis and Yemenis by the police, though quite how much energy will be put into policing the ban remains to be seen. In the paranoid era of the “˜war on terror’, one can only hope this new power of the police over such groups will be used sensitively.
For producing countries the ban is likely to have a number of repercussions. In Kenya these have already been felt, as Meru (the ethnic group who produce much of the crop) and others bitterly condemn the ban, unsurprisingly given that most of the khat reaching the UK comes from Meru. While some Meru suggest that if the British won’t overturn the ban, they should seek to trade the substance in China (reflecting Kenya’s “˜look East’ policy), it is more likely that the volume reaching the UK now will be absorbed by the national trade, or by that to Somalia itself.
Khat consumption has become yet more popular throughout Kenya recently, mainly due to rising production in different parts of the country of a cheap variety called mokhokha that has opened up consumption to people of lower budgets. In this context, the low quality khat that was usually sent to the UK (tougher stems that could cope with the transport) might offer mokhokha some competition. However, livelihoods in parts of Meru that specifically supply the UK will certainly be hard hit in the near future, and pressure should be maintained on the UK government to find ways to ease this.
Ironically, the British ban – coming at a time of strained relations between the UK and Kenya – has only strengthened the crop’s position in Kenya itself. For decades Meru have lobbied for government support in the industry, but mostly governments since Independence have taken a hands-off approach to a crop subject to international suspicion. With the British ban, the government finally threw its support behind it, funding legal action in the UK against the decision, and attending protest rallies in Meru. Though these efforts have not swayed opinion in the UK Home Office, they do reflect quite a change in the Kenyan government’s policy towards the substance.
What might happen further into the future is anyone’s guess, especially given that the international drug apparatus appears under increasing strain, as even in the USA more liberal policies towards the likes of cannabis are being put into action. The khat debate in the UK has often been strangely disconnected from this wider debate around drug laws in general, being seen as an issue bound up in minority rights. Now that it is to be made illegal the substance will enter the shady territories inhabited by these other substances in the UK, and is unlikely to emerge unless these cracks in international drug control policy lead to a much more profound shift in how society deals with such ambiguous substances.
Neil Carrier is lecturer in African Anthropology at the University of Oxford. He is author of Africa and the War on Drugs – recently published by Zed Books in the African Arguments series.