Alongside the pungent piles of berebere, what I remember most from the Ethiopian markets I visited during palaeolimnological fieldwork for my PhD is the neat bundles of qat wrapped in banana leaves. Occasionally, our Ethiopian collaborators would sit down, chew the fresh green qat (chat, khat) leaves, and spit out the residue. Once we were invited to join, and offered sugar to mask the unpleasant taste. I may have chewed a leaf, enough to know it tastes bad, but not long enough wear out my jaw, cover the floor with green spittle or experience the mild stimulant effect of cathinone.
Today the British Home Secretary, Theresa May, decided, against the advice of the overwhelming majority of Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), to ban qat because it encourages spitting, which is antisocial. May claims to have other reasons, but as they make no sense, it must be the spitting, which as everybody knows is a foul habit, to be discouraged by any disproportionate measure possible.
The UK is to ban qat because the majority of North European countries have banned qat. Has May forgotten that she is a Eurosceptic, and normally tries to opt-out of European co-operation that help police tackle serious cross-border crime for no apparent reason other than to portray herself as a Eurosceptic? But the bans in Europe have been established by individual governments, not by the EU so perhaps they are OK. Had the ban been a diktat from Brussels, May would now be considering laws to make qat consumption compulsory.
She is concerned that by not banning qat, the UK risks becoming a centre for “illegal onward trafficking”. The government appears to believe that the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab profit from trade in qat, although the ACMD could find no evidence of this (perhaps ACMD were not shown the latest from GCHQ). The precedents are hardly encouraging. Alcohol prohibition created the environment for Al Capone‘s tax free business ventures and the ban on cocaine fuels the profits of al-Qaida’s trans-Saharan drug smuggling operations. Banning qat will drive out legitimate businesses, leaving only the illegal ones to thrive with enhanced profits.
The Home Secretary argues that qat “continues to feature prominently amongst the health and social harms, such as low attainment and family breakdown”. Presumably she is also arguing against cuts to benefits that others in the government are proposing, and has evaluated whether qat consumption is a cause of low attainment or a consequence of low attainment.
Unlike the clear evidence of serious medial problems linked to alcohol and tobacco consumption, there is “no direct causal link to adverse medical effects, other than a small number of reports of an association between khat use and significant liver toxicity.” This may reflect the relative paucity of studies on qat, but given the long history of consumption and number of consumers, if there were serious effects they should have been detected. Nutt et al (2007) use rational criteria to classify drugs show that qat is in the groups of drugs that cause least harm socially, physically and in terms of dependence. Far less serious than alcohol or tobacco.
If the Home Secretary wanted to reduce the harm from drugs on society, she should support a minimum price for alcohol rather than opposing it. Obviously the drinks industry employs better lobbyists than the qat traders.
I’m waiting for the government to ban that other mild stimulant from Ethiopia, that causes groups of people to sit round and waste time. Perhaps caffeine drinkers don’t spit enough to arouse the wrath of the Home Secretary.