Pubdate: Thu, 05 Jan 2006
Source: BBC News (UK Web)
Copyright: 2006 BBC
Author: Chris Summers, BBC News
Bookmark: (Khat)


The UK Home Office is expected to announce within days whether it will
ban khat, a narcotic shrub which men in the Somali and Yemeni
communities have traditionally chewed.

Khat is illegal in the United States but is entirely uncontrolled in
UK. Is it really any more dangerous than tobacco or alcohol?

The stimulant khat, or qat, is currently legal in the UK although it
is banned in the United States, Canada and several European countries.

The plant - celastrus edulis - is grown mainly in Kenya and Ethiopia
but most of the crop is picked and flown to Somalia or the Yemen or to
expatriate groups in Europe.

Labour MP Mike Gapes said khat was "causing havoc in the Somali
community" and he has called on Home Secretary Charles Clarke to make
it a controlled substance.

The MP for Ilford South said: "It used to be chewed mainly by old men
but it is now being used by young boys who are in a state of permanent

Decision Due Soon

"There is evidence of serious psychotic consequences from long-term
use and also a suggestion that it is carcinogenic."

Khat has been used for centuries by Somalis, not only for its
energy-giving qualities, but also because it makes people more
relaxed, talkative and friendly and is also said to improve sexual
prowess, although in some men it can actually have the opposite effect.

Just before Christmas the Advisory Committee on Drug Misuse handed Mr
Clarke its report on khat, which included a recommendation.

The report is due to be published later this month and, if it
recommends a ban, it is thought Mr Clarke will push ahead with

Many Somali women resent the effect of khat on their menfolk and this
opposition was highlighted by a recent survey.

Nearly 600 members of Britain's Somali community were interviewed and
49% said they would support a ban on khat.

The Yemeni community were not canvassed for their opinions.


The Home Office said of the survey: "Those who wanted to see it banned
generally thought that Somali people would achieve more in British
society, working and studying harder than they currently did with khat
to distract them."

Faisa Mohammed, chair of the Bromley-based Somali Well Women Project,
said the abuse of khat was damaging many Somali families in Britain.

She said: "Back home the men were the breadwinners but they came to
Britain without jobs and took up khat, which has become an addiction.
They chew all night and during the day they can't do anything."

She told the BBC News website: "The women are going out to work,
taking the children to school, doing the shopping and the men are
doing nothing but chewing."

Khat was traditionally chewed by Somali men - it was until recently
taboo for Somali women to chew - in a gathering place known as a mafrish.

Mohammed Ducaale, a Somali journalist based in Britain, said: "The
mafrish is as important to the Somali community as the pub is to the
British community. It is traditionally where people go to talk about
their problems or plans."

To be of good quality khat has to be consumed as fresh as possible and
the product is often flown overnight to its consumers.

The trade in khat in one Somali city alone, Hargeisa - the capital of
breakaway Somaliland - is estimated at $300,000 a day.

Somalia has been mired in political and military anarchy for more than
a decade and many believe the violence between the country's various
warlords has been exacerbated by the drug.

Certainly the Americans thought so when they banned it shortly after
the infamous battle of Mogadishu in 1993, which was immortalised in
the film Black Hawk Down.

US military chiefs, who lost 18 soldiers during Operation Restore
Hope, were amazed by the endurance of Somali militiamen who fought on
for days boosted by khat.

But Abdisalam Mohamed, who came to Britain 15 years ago, said the
nature of khat chewing had changed since the day of pre-civil war Somalia.

Mr Mohamed, a journalist with the BBC's Somali Service, said: "Khat
never used to be a problem. My father was a banker and he was a
chewer. After work he would meet friends and they would chew and talk
about the day's events and exchange ideas.

"But nowadays, especially in England, these people don't have jobs.
They just sit around all day and all night chewing. They don't talk to
each other and the mafrish is often unhygienic."

Mr Gapes said: "Somali groups in my constituency, especially women's
groups, are horrified by the effect khat is having.

"The Somali community has high levels of unemployment and
non-engagement with the rest of society. Although there are many
successful Somalis, it is a community which is under-achieving and I
believe khat is partly to blame."

But many Somalis feel khat is no more dangerous or anti-social than
alcohol or tobacco and should not be criminalised.

Mr Ducaale said the problem, as in the case of alcohol, was with those
who abused the substance.

"It is not in itself addictive but there are people, especially the
young and unemployed, who will chew and chew for 10 hours non-stop,
which is not healthy," he said.

Mr Ducaale said people who chewed too much were not only wasting their
lives but were also in danger from mouth cancer - many of the khat
farmers are believed to spray their crops with carcinogenic pesticides.

Mr Mohammed, who chews in moderation, said people were abusing it but
that was no reason to ban it outright.

He described the benefits of khat: "It is a stimulant and it
stimulates the mind. You open up like a flower when you chew. You
think positively and make plans for the future. It is a good way of

Mr Mohammed said while Somalis largely chewed khat in groups of men,
for Yemenis it was something which was usually chewed at home with the
rest of the family.

Mr Ducaale said he hoped the Home Office would stop short of a ban and
introduce instead some form of licensing system which would require
each mafrish to close at certain times and to pay regard to hygiene
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake