ILLEGAL IN THE UK: A Somali man smokes khat at a social gathering
HEALTH WORKERS and council officials in Bristol are working with the city’s Somali community to help it deal with the recent ban on the drug khat.
Khat, a plant-based stimulant, is predominantly used by Somali and Yemeni men when they socialise in the mafrish – a house or gathering place where men have traditionally met to talk and make decisions on behalf of the community. As khat is a socialising drug it is usually chewed for many hours.
However last year, Home Secretary Theresa May decided to outlaw the drug despite claims from the government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) that khat has no links to adverse medical effects and should not be banned.
The ban, which came into effect earlier this month, will mean that khat is classified as a class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 putting khat on a par with other class C controlled substances such as ketamine and GHB.
Possession of a class C drug carries a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment and a fine. Supply or production carries a maximum sentence of 14 years’ imprisonment and a fine.
Safer Bristol’s Substance Misuse Team has been working in partnership with the community since the Government announced its plan to make khat illegal.
Aside from raising awareness about the impact of the ban, their focus has been to identify ways to improve education, training and job opportunities for both traders and users of the drug.
Currently the council is working with the Somali community to signpost traders to appropriate employment and business support services to help facilitate the transition from khat being legal to being a banned substance.
Peter Anderson, the council’s Service Manager for Crime and Substance Misuse said: “Some khat users will use it once in a while, while others will use it every day. As with other addictive substances around 5 per cent are what would be considered problematic users and need more help to stop their dependence. The risk is that they will switch to other drugs. We are signposting people who need help with addiction to treatment services in the area so they can get the support they need.”
Anderson added: “It is difficult to fully predict the impact khat classification will have on the Somali community until it happens but the community itself has been taking an active role in finding its own solutions.”
Women in the Somali community – which numbers 10,000 in Bristol - have widely supported the government’s measures saying that khat use leads to more incidents of domestic abuse and family breakdown as men spend much time away from their families chewing khat with other men. As one of the effects of khat chewing is insomnia, this can affect users’ ability to communicate with family members. The police estimate that of the adult users in Bristol 5-10 per cent are female, whilst 80 per cent are male.
The Bristol Somali Resource Centre in Barton Hill provides free impartial information and guidance to people in the local community.
The centre’s Abdullahi Farah said its focus would be to help users of the drug whose first language is not English.
“We already support khat users and know the difficulties surrounding khat. It is intensive work and we need to work together” he said.
Banning the drug last year, May said: “Khat continues to feature prominently amongst the health and social harms, such as low attainment and family breakdown, cited by affected communities and the police and local authorities working with them. The Government will ban khat so we can protect vulnerable members of our communities and send a clear message to our international partners and khat smugglers that the UK is serious about stopping the illegal trafficking of khat."
However Professor David Nutt, former head of the ACMD called the announcement "yet another disappointment," while drug experts and drug policy campaigners roundly criticized the decision.
Police officers expect to take a ‘softly softly’ approach to the ban in response to concerns that it would push the Somali community into criminal circles.
Users will be given a warning for a first offence, a £60 fine for a second and only facing possible jail time for a third offence.
Guidance from the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) guidance says: “It is important that officers…retain their operational discretion; taking into account that khat has historically not been a controlled drug and was part of the culture for certain communities linked to the Horn of Africa."