The Criminalisation of Khat

In July 2014, the UK became the last European country to ban Khat. With debates ongoing on whether illegal drugs should be decriminalised, this newly criminalised substance provides an opportunity to examine this debate from a new angle.

Khat is a naturally occurring stimulant that has traditionally been cultivated in Kenya, Ethiopia and Yemen. Over the past twenty years khat, has been imported in growing quantities to Europe. The main consumers of khat are African immigrants, most notably Somalis. The World Health Organisation expert committee recommended the scheduling of the active ingredients in 1985, which led to the prohibition of khat in Sweden and Norway in 1989 and Denmark in 1993. Most European governments followed without further study with the exception of the Netherlands and the UK. Over the past 15 years these two countries became the hubs for continent-wide khat traffick.

Over 2,000 tonnes of khat are imported each year, classed as a vegetable. This generates significant taxable income, and revenue for Kenyan farmers. Much of the imported khat was consumed in the UK, in the hundreds of mafrishes or khat cafes that have sprung up around the country. But a considerable amount was moved on to other markets – North America, where khat has been banned since the 1990s and Scandinavia. Most other European countries were supplied from the Netherlands, but in 2013 the Dutch government imposed a ban on the khat import, with the UK following suit this year.

The consequences of the ban have been instant. It has been withdrawn from the corner shops and green grocers that used to stock it among their fruit and vegetable racks. Many of the mafrishes have closed, though some are struggling on serving soft drinks and food. As the demand is still strong, importation continues, though now via criminal networks. The ban has affected both price and product – khat used to be sold mainly in bundles of shoots and leaves wrapped in banana leafs. The freshness of the plant is imperative, as the psychoactive ingredients disintegrate within 72 hours. But these bundles are bulky and hard to conceal. Before the ban they were trading at between €4-6 on average for about 250 grams of khat. Today the bundle trades for over €30. Most khateurs, however, resort to cheaper alternatives. Dried khat powder that is dissolved in hot water and drunk as a tea has become popular, as have frozen leaves.

The second reported effect is the change in the relationship between seller and buyer. Whereas in the past customers would inspect the product before purchase and shop around, the exchanges have become furtive affairs, often in dark or hidden places. There are no longer any negotiations, sellers simply state their terms and customers cannot assess the quality of what they are paying for. It is not even possible to distinguish between Harari (Ethiopian) and Miraa (Kenyan) khat as importers mix them up, often recycling old stock and possibly other vegetable matter.

The third reported consequence is the criminalisation of drug sellers. Though khat is a Class C drug (for comparison: Cannabis is Class B, heroin and cocaine are Class A), dealing still attracts a fine, possible prison sentence and a criminal record. In October, the first khat trafficker was sentenced in the UK, receiving a custodial sentence for attempting to import 14.5 kg of the leaf. The Scandinavian experience suggests that amateurs will soon be replaced by professional groups.

The fourth consequence, for which there are only faint indications at present is the diversification of khat sellers to other substances. In Streatham, south London, former khat traders are now offering crack cocaine. A similar trend has been reported from Scandinavia, where Somali importers have carried multi commodity loads, including cannabis and cocaine on their return runs from Amsterdam.

More difficult to assess are the social consequences, as the closure of the mafrish effectively removes an accessible and affordable public space that is not controlled by religious groups. These closures ensure that mosques and other Islamic institutes now provide the only alternative. According to some sources former khat users are being radicalized at religious establishments that are largely funded by the Gulf states and have a very different attitude to khat than the Islamic traditions of Ethiopia, Yemen and Kenya.

The North American and Scandinavian experience suggests that sections of the migrant populations will continue to look for khat and are even prepared to pay exorbitant prices for a low quality product. The price increase that has come with criminalisation creates opportunities that are attracting groups with experience in dealing illicit commodities. Somali traders already have considerable experience in the distribution of khat within Europe. However, there is a risk that they will connect with other African groups engaged in other forms of illicit trade. West African groups in particular already have a foothold in Ethiopia and Kenya, key exporters of khat, as well as in the European markets, where Nigerians and Somalis interact.

The consequences of the khat ban are wide ranging. The role of organised crime is likely to increase, and the social consequences have also been devastating. While Khat is a very different substance to heroin or cocaine, it points to the unintended consequences of criminalisation.