David Nutt: Khat is a chewable form of coffee.
People from East Africa; Somalis, Yemenis, Ethiopians…
They’ve been wanting to for a long time. Americans have been putting pressure on the UK to ban it because we are the main transit point from Africa into the USA. Ever since khat’s been banned in the USA, there has been massive smuggling and criminal activity around khat, and they want us to help them with their problems. It’s not a problem in this country at present.
Criminalising people in our country who are using an ethnically sanctioned, traditional drug? Would we ban alcohol in Britain if America prohibited it? That’s ridiculous! It’s totally wrong! After banning it they’ve just had a lot more crime, as always happens when you ban something. They’re trying to unload some of their crime onto the UK. If we ban it in the UK, there’ll be a massive increase in criminal activity. We shouldn’t comply with their irrational demands to ban drugs. Absolutely not.
Khat is like coffee: you take a lot of it, you get a bit wired. There’s some suggestion that if you chew a lot and it’s been sprayed with insecticide then you could get some problems in the mouth, and there are some cases of liver cirrhosis associated with it. In some cases, some people get a bit psychotic chewing it. But it’s a pretty harmless thing. Chewing khat for a couple of hours is like drinking four espressos.
It’s quite a low-grade stimulant, and has been around since before coffee. Coffee and khat both come from the same part of the world. With khat you can’t actually brew it – you have to chew it – whereas coffee you can brew, but it’s very similar in terms of its pharmacology.
Well some immigrant communities, particularly Somalis, who haven’t got any work, spend a lot of time in groups chewing khat. That’s a fact – just like a lot of young, unemployed people in the white British community drink alcohol while watching TV or in bars. That’s not a reason for banning the drug; it’s a reason for doing something about their lack of activities.
It’s outrageous. I mean, the ACMD made very nice reports that gave a very detailed critique of the harms, said they’re not very harmful and also gave lots of useful ways of dealing with it. If people are concerned about the problem of a group of young Somalis chewing khat as they are today, then there are other ways of dealing with it. You don’t have to criminalise them – that will certainly just alienate them. And it’s quite paradoxical: on the same day that they’re saying “let’s reduce stop and search” they’re saying “let’s go and start searching Somalis for having khat in their mouths”. It’s a completely illogical approach.
It’s hardly clear to me at all. I know from when I was working on the ACMD that there was pressure from the USA for the last seven years to ban khat. We’ve resisted it – the current ACMD resisted it – but the government wants it to go on. It’s part of the government wanting to be good to the US, who’ve wanted to ban it for a long time. Banning drugs is what Home Secretaries do. It’s how they get their kicks, I suppose.
Yeah, I’ve chewed it. It’s quite bitter and not very pleasant, but I haven’t chewed it for long enough to get an effect. I think you’ve got to chew quite a few leaves to get an effect.
[Laughs]. Well if you get scratched by a cat then the cat can be a lot more dangerous, yes.
This is another example of the government making its mind up and wanting to control another drug to show it’s hard on drugs. It’s political posturing; they don’t care about the evidence and they will simply do it because they want to. It’s another nail in the coffin of the credibility of scientific advisory councils. I mean, if I was on the ACMD now I’d be feeling very, very hurt that all the good advice on how to reduce the harms of khat were ignored, simply to make a political point.