Is Khat really bad news or just another political football being kicked around our embattled minority communities?
Khat is a green leafy shrub grown around the Red Sea region and the East Coast of Africa. This cash crop is chewed raw and produces a mild amphetamine response in the brain and severe long term effects in concentration. It can cause hypertension, paranoid psychosis, depression, anorexia, heart attacks, dysfunction of the working memory in the brain , mouth cancer and tooth-loss and yet amazingly the advice of the Directorate of Public Health currently remains 'to wash the leaves to remove pesticides'.
For activists, many of them women's rights organisations this of course beggars belief and they are hoping that the coalition government will look again at this devastating blight on an already struggling community. In fact in 2008 in an interview with the BBC Baroness Warsi indicated that if the Conservatives were to get into government that they would press ahead for a ban on Khat sale and use because of the disproportionate damage to certain communities.
Currently the drug is legal in the UK (banned in the US and much of Europe) and imported in vast quantities on a weekly basis to serve a growing demand in Somali, Yemeni and increasingly wider UK communities. The commodity accounts for a great deal of the GDP in sending countries and prior to oil exports was 30% of Yemeni GDP, the tax revenue alone is huge but beyond that it is in many cases the only viable business for the people of the impoverished and war-torn lands of Kenya, Somalia and Yemen. In the UK Home Office figures show that just under £3 million is collected in duty annually.
In East Africa and Yemen men are the customers and women the sellers, women having care-giving roles and need to earn enough to feed children often in the face of neglect and abuse from the violence and paranoid control behaviour manifesting in the seasoned Khat users.
Amazingly, the Federal Government in poverty-stricken Somalia estimates that within Somalia alone over $300 million is spent on Khat all of which is subject to government tax and also ad-hoc taxes imposed illegally by the militias and terrorist organisations that control a significant part of the country.
In the UK over 80% of Somalian-born men use Khat, and children and women are now joining this habit and availability is now widespread across the UK with Mafrishi (Khat Houses) springing up in the impoverished side streets of our major cities supported by an extensive distribution network. Some teenage men and boys can spend the entire day intoxicated in the Mafrishi with obvious impacts on employment, education and health.
In my own work among low-income African and Middle-Eastern community members I have seen impacts however, that are easily as disturbing as the array of medical dangers that accompany Khat use. These are the social and emotional impacts within subsequently polarised families, those who chew and those who oppose it, the social fabric of families torn apart by the anti-social side effects of Khat addiction. More-often, women bear the brunt of these effects because in the UK Khat addiction is still an issue dominated by men.
Women who live in already heavily gendered patriarchal communities find their positions worsened through the increase of authoritarian behaviour in the home, social restrictions placed on women and girls by the increasingly paranoid men-often citing Islamic or cultural evidence to support outrageous demands. I have been told before of very young Somali girls told not to go to school anymore as it was pointless, that early marriage was the best course; of course education being the most direct route for gender empowerment and freedom in the UK.
Rani Bilkhu, the UK's only Mental Health Chaplain adds that
whereas smoking and alcohol is forbidden in many minority religions, Khat is not and hence there is no loss of moral high ground in using itand of course the addict never considers themselves as dependent, the drug affording the user increased confidence and alertness. Bilkhu states that;
women are increasingly becoming victims of domestic violence including marital rape because of the drug and are suffering depression themselvessomething echoed in academic research from Uganda. Addicts often wake at all hours of the night on a regular basis which poses new risks to women and children. Bilkhu says that tragically
some addicts end up using family welfare benefit payments to fund their drug use leaving mothers and children extremely vulnerable and struggling to meet basic human needs
It is a world that is rarely penetrated by TV cameras or news reporters, it is emboldened by the tolerance of communities, religious leaders and elected community leaders who in the absence of a legislative remedy could easily bring changes however small in their own communities; communities for whom they have assumed a responsibility. Yet, religious leaders, in particular Islamic leaders who preside over the vast majority of Khat users in the UK continue to look the other way, and in some cases regard the drug as part of Islamic observance. However, in Somalia some hyper-conservative Islamic leaders have called for the destruction of Khat crops, so why are UK Islamic leaders remaining silent?
Academic research from Sana'a (Yemen) and Ethiopia have also shown the startling evidence that combined with alcohol Khat users exhibit risky sexual behaviour which has had devastating effects in countries struggling with HIV and this is especially prevalent among the young; dependency on Khat rendering them too intoxicated to conform to sexual precautions and concerning given the increase in university students using to study late into the night.
In the UK I have seen the increase of women consuming Khat, even giving it to their children and this is because it is a social norm. As a researcher I have been astounded to be offered it openly in a focus group; my response of 'thank you but no- I think it is bad for your brain and addictive' greeted with raucous laughter and giggling. It is in these moments that it becomes very clear that already there is a mountain to climb to educate users on the dangers they face. Unlike Somalia, Somali women in the UK are increasingly just as likely to become addicts, the drug providing some comfort from a hostile everyday existence and an opportunity to share in a pastime that is available equally to Muslim men and women without the cultural stigmas attached to alcohol use or smoking. This is important as cultural and religious stigmas can be viciously policed in such communities, leading to significant risk of honour-based violence.
So, should we be bothered? Are we stigmatising yet another community? Are we being racist? Islamaphobic? These are all questions we in Britain are familiar with after a decade of anxieties over 'upsetting communities' Britain is awash with harmful practices challenged mainly by an unpaid and overworked hidden force of NGOs themselves from the same communities. They are at the coalface of Khat dependency and members of the same community. However often though the symptoms such as domestic violence, neglect of children, homelessness, sudden mental health problems can bring action; the cause a serious and life-threatening addiction remains unchanged. In fact some have argued that the retreat from dealing with the problem which undoubtedly for now effects minority communities is itself inverse racism.
Many will argue that the fight against Khat produces stigma, a fair comment, but over time this argument has led to a state retreat from the problem, which has had devastating effects in communities keen to integrate but facing an uphill struggle as young people struggle to hold down jobs and relationships once the drug takes a hold. We should also be aware, that Khat is now crossing cultural divides, perhaps, if true- rather shamefully, this will provide government with the impetus to seek change.
Additionally, we have all heard the circular arguments for legalising addictive drugs citing always, alcohol and tobacco dependency as more damaging. However, listening to those who support familial victims of Khat addiction, they are overwhelmingly in favour of a complete ban on importation. I think it's important to listen to these people, because they see more clearly the devastating effects of long-term use. It is clear that alongside policy and legislative changes we need societal changes - and whether we like it or not; this growing crisis is on our watch folks.