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Drugs: Khat

Volume 702: debated on Tuesday 24 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will ban the drug khat in the light of its impact on communities in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the Government recognise the concerns and the need for a current and appropriate response. Our 2008 drugs strategy action plan commits us across relevant government departments to consider further the individual and social harms created by khat use. If there is a material adverse change in our understanding, we will ask the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for further advice on the case for control.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response, but I am somewhat surprised that this matter is still being consulted on in 2008. I am sure that he is aware that his Government consulted on the matter in 2005. Indeed, they received a report from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and set up a khat working group. My noble friend Lady Anelay asked this Question in Parliament in 1998. This drug is destroying the Somali, the Yemeni and the Ethiopian communities. Families and young children’s education are being destroyed. If the achievements and aspirations of communities are being denied by not being protected from this drug, the equality of opportunity agenda in this country is not being met for certain communities. This is essential for community cohesion. Will the Minister deal with the matter by classifying this drug?

My Lords, I know that the noble Baroness feels great passion about this subject. Indeed, I read an article by her in one of the broadsheets which my wife takes and which we have family disputes about at times. The noble Baroness is absolutely correct that this was looked at in detail in 2005 by the advisory council, Nacro and Turning Point. It was decided at that stage that this would be treated as a public health issue rather than with a criminal justice response. That is the basis on which we have gone ahead. It in no way underestimates the harm that the drug can cause. We believe that the right way to tackle this is prevention, harm reduction and education. We have made great strides, but I do not underestimate what a real risk this drug is.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the main harms from khat is liver disease in the person who takes it chronically, rather than harm to others? One difficulty for regulatory authorities is recognising khat. It is imported as a vegetable and is difficult to recognise at points of entry. I must declare an interest as a member of ACMD. On the balance of harms, given that it is difficult to police and does not seem to be related to mainstream criminal activity, there would be more disturbance within the Somali and Yemeni communities by criminalising it than by trying to educate people to avoid the devastating liver disease that ensues.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct. That was part of the equation in the debate. There is no full consensus in the Somali community about this. However, there is no doubt whatever about the real harm that the drug can cause. It is bought for about $1 a kilo in Kenya and is sold in this country for about £30 to £50 a kilo. It is mainly used by the men in that Somali group, most of whom have come here in the past 12 to 14 years and have tended to go to inner-city areas. It is a real problem, but it would be wrong at the moment to treat it with a criminal justice response. It is right to go about it in the way that we are, but we are continually monitoring the problem. If it should change, we will not hesitate to take action.

My Lords, what research has been commissioned by the Government since the 2005 ACMD report and the Home Office study of Somali use of khat in four major cities of the United Kingdom at about the same time? Does the noble Lord agree that if you criminalise the drug, as the noble Baroness suggested, the likely result would be to get more people into the courts and prisons without necessarily affecting the import and consumption of this product? Would the right answer be to tax khat, to supervise the establishments in which it is sold and to embark on a public education programme, particularly in the Somali and Yemeni communities?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a number of points. It is absolutely right that we should treat this as a public health issue. Interestingly, there is no doubt whatever about this. This stuff is brought into the country and people should pay VAT. We have tried to engage with the mafreshi, which are the dens where, I am afraid, men will chew one or two bundles of this stuff in a session. In fact, HMRC are homing in on these places, which is a way of tackling the problem. The proper VAT and such things should be paid, but they are not being paid and those involved have not been good at engaging with us on health and safety and other things, which we need to pursue. I believe that it is still much more a public health issue than a criminal issue, but we will keep reviewing it. Occasionally, for some drugs, there is a case for criminalisation.

My Lords, bearing in mind the complicating factors that the Minister and the noble Baroness properly referred to, will the Minister confirm that, in the event of Her Majesty’s Government being persuaded by the misuse of drugs body that there is a case for criminalisation, this can be done easily under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 without primary legislation? In fact, by affirmative orders in both Houses, it can be done speedily.

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. That is the basis on which it would be done if we moved down that route.