Khat: in defence of the right to chew
It isn't Theresa May's defiance of experts we should be worried about: it's her illiberal urges.
‘Absolute idiot: home secretary defies her own expert advisers; makes herbal stimulant [khat] class C drug.’
This was one of the many tweets expressing disdain towards UK home secretary Theresa May and her decision to ban the currently legal plant khat. May’s decision went against the advice of a report written by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) earlier this year. The report found that there was ‘insufficient evidence’ that khat caused health problems and that those who chew it for hours at a time to get a mild high – predominantly members of the East African community in the UK – should continue to be free to do so.
Despite its relative cheapness – about £4 for a bundle of stems – khat has never caught on as a recreational drug in mainstream British culture. And there are pretty obvious reasons why: it has a foul, bitter taste, makes your teeth go green and the stems have to be chewed and stored in the cheeks for hours to even get remotely wired, a sensation not unlike a few shots of espresso. As a result, in the UK khat-chewing is largely the preserve of Somali, Ethiopian and Yemeni men who frequent mafrishes – the equivalent of pubs for khat – and chew the plant as a way of chilling out, as has been a tradition in East Africa for centuries.
Given its importance to East African tradition, apparently even the paternalistic New Labour government decided not to go there and ban it. However, Conservative minister May has decided she knows better than East Africans about what’s in their best interests, and has decided to ban khat ‘so that we can protect vulnerable members of our communities’. In the name of protecting them, May has criminalised an act that up to a third of UK-based Somalis undertake on a regular basis. Somalis and others could face street searches by the police and be treated as harshly as the users of party drug ketamine for doing something as normal to East Africans as going to the pub for a pint. Should they choose to engage in this particular tradition, East Africans are now far more likely to have their livelihoods destroyed by a prison sentence than they ever were due to khat’s side-effects.
That May has casually criminalised a core activity of an entire community does not seem to be a concern of many reacting against her decision, however. No, they seem more concerned by the fact that she went against the advice of her own experts when deciding upon a ban. Leading the charge against the khat ban was scorned expert par excellence, and the former chairman of the ACMD, Professor David Nutt. In 2009, Nutt was fired for publicly criticising government dismissals of his advice on the classification of another party drug, ecstasy. Nutt claimed that banning khat shows ‘contempt for reason and evidence’. Drawing upon a recurring anti-alcohol theme, he pointed out: ‘By nearly every possible objective measure… alcohol causes far greater danger to health, life and society at large than… [khat].’ He says that the khat ban doesn’t surprise him, however, because May has disregarded expert advisers and evidence before, ‘personally undermining her own government’s promise to reduce the far greater harms caused by alcohol’.
The Guardian joined in, reporting that May ‘defied her own expert advisers and banned [khat]’. Others on Twitter were equally angry. ‘What’s the fucking point in the expert advisers then? #Idiots’, tweeted one. ‘Another blow to rational, evidence-based policy’, tweeted another.
How dare May defy the experts and press on with a ban? Doesn’t she know that evidence trumps political decision-making? Such is the cult of the expert now that decisions made by scientific experts about whether to ban or not to ban are ignored at one’s peril.
This is not to say that May’s decision is particularly principled. In rejecting her advisers’ suggestions, May is going against the evidence-based approach towards policymaking that she seems to endorse; any ban on substances has to follow consultation with the ACMD. Indeed, May argued that she decided to ban khat due to the ACMD evidence base being insufficient, which means ‘we risk underestimating the actual harms of khat in our communities owing to the limitations of the evidence base available to the ACMD’. Even where evidence cannot be found, May is so caught up in the language of evidence that she seems to want to use the mere possibility of the existence of evidence as a grounds for banning something.
Leaving aside all the clashes over evidence and expertise, one very real thing happened last week: in the UK, East Africans have been prevented from doing something that they and their ancestors have done for years. Whatever the evidence, they should be allowed to continue to indulge their habit regardless of the impacts upon their wellbeing and in spite of what policymakers and well-meaning ‘experts’ think about it. Because there is something more important than expertise and Ms May’s personal concerns: it’s called freedom of choice.
Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.