For 25 years I have represented the City of Newport which has a large Somali Community. I have also been a Councillor in the area since 1972. The Somali community in Newport is well-integrated, settled and peaceful. There is widespread use of Khat mostly by young Somalis but also among a minority the elderly.
Calls for the criminalisation of Khat have been made periodically over the past 40 years to my knowledge. Each time the case is based upon the belief that Khat is harmful and that criminalising it would reduce its use. I have consistently taken the view that there is little or no evidence that prohibiting a drug reduces its use or harm. This has certainly been the experience with the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. At that time there were approximately 1,000 addicts of Heroin and Cocaine in the United Kingdom. The latest figure is that there are 320,000 people who are regular users of those drugs – most of whom are addicted to them.
I believe that the well-meaning belief in drugs prohibition is generally evidence-free and based on prejudice and ignorance of past experiences. There is another compelling reason why the Advisory Council should resist calls for the criminalisation of Khat. Khat is used as the centre of social life among the Somali communities. It is relatively harmless in its effects. While it is mildly intoxicating and can reduce the efficiency of Somalis in their working life, the harm is minor when compared to other widely used drugs. There is great concern among the wiser Somali leaders that removing their main recreational drug will encourage Somalis to take up the far more dangerous drugs of alcohol and tobacco. This is a powerful argument which is one that is should be fully considered.
At the moment the import and use of Khat is a micro-industry and there are a number of small businesses that depend on its commerce. Prohibition would force the closure of those businesses or drive them underground into criminality. This would have the very serious effect of driving a wedge between the Somali and Yemeni communities and the Police. The consequences of that would be that the workload of the Police, courts and prisons would be greatly multiplied and that the present harmonious community relations would be badly damaged.
In the past this issue has been frequently considered in the UK. In every case governments have resisted the strong campaigns that have called for the criminalisation of Khat. The evidence of the consequences of criminalisation ofMethedrone last year are compelling. There are reliable reports that the use of the drugs has trebled, probably as a consequences of the ban. Similar unintended consequences could follow a decision to criminalise. It is likely that the use of Khat could spread outside the Yemeni and Somali communities and into the general community if prohibition led to the establishment of a new criminal market which would have a vested interest in increasing the use of the drug beyond its traditional users.