In the history of drug control, the prohibition on popular, psychoactive substances has three distinct consequences:
- The replacement of a mild / moderate version of the drug with stronger ones, e.g. the ban of opium/beer is followed by the spread of heroin/whisky.
- The criminalisation of the distribution chain.
- The loss of quality control and consumer choice.
Khat (cahta edulis), the naturally occurring stimulant cultivated in Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen was banned in the UK this summer, against scientific advice and many voices in the communities affected. This has created a new set of opportunities for organised crime groups, discussed in recent posts. It has also had led to a sharp increase in price and an equally steep drop in quality. In November and December of last year Ealing hospital, according to a British tabloid, admitted a number of people who suffered from swelling of the face, itching, sweating and vomiting. It is reported that in one case a user died of a heart attack.
This is the first time that khat, which has been popular with the Ethiopian, Kenyan, Yemeni and Somali communities in the UK for over 30 years, has been associated with serious physiological problems. Since the ban came into effect last summer the regular imports of freshly harvested khat shoots, wrapped in banana leafs, have been replaced by freeze dried vegetable matter, smuggled in as ‘Chinese tea’.
For policy makers contemplating new directions to drug policy in the run up to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in 2016, the experience with khat is an important case study. Vigorous enforcement may effect reductions in the open availability and consumption of a particular drug. But such gains come at a cost to public health and criminality, as we can now observe around khat. Any discussion about pre-emptive action against organised crime and pro-active public health has to include the case for regulated markets.