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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 13th February 2012

I’ve heard back from the BBC after my complaint about its Radio 4 programme ‘The Report’ on Thursday 26th January on the subject of whether Catha edulis, khat, should be classified under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

The complaint has been answered by the programme’s editor in some detail, though that detail didn’t extend to providing his/her name. Here’s my complaint, again;

The programme had an agenda that khat should be banned in the UK. To support that agenda it interviewed a number of people only one of whom argued against a ban on khat. I know that other people who believe a ban would be a mistake were interviewed but their contributions were not broadcast.

Many of those supporting a ban were individuals offering anecdotal support for a ban. The overwhelming scientific evidence against a ban was all but ignored.

Catha edulis, khat

The MP Mark Lancaster was interviewed but not challenged about the appalling lack of knowledge he demonstrated on this subject in his own debate.

In spite of being told by a very senior policeman that there was no evidence for the involvement of terrorists in the marketing of khat, the reporter still suggested such involvement.

One contributor was introduced as a 'former addict' but there is no evidence that khat is addictive in the true sense. In fact, there is evidence that users who find the price is too high for them in times of shortage are able to go without, experiencing nothing worse than a football fan in the close season.

At no time did the report ask representatives of other European countries why the UK should be expected to do their job for them. They decided to outlaw khat, let them enforce their ban.

There was almost no mention of the American pressure on the matter, perhaps, because the programme makers knew that suggesting a ban on khat would be bending the knee to the USA would not help their case.

And here’s the reply from the unnamed ‘Editor’.

"We are sorry you feel the programme had an agenda that khat should be banned. That is certainly not what we were intending. Our aim was to examine the consequences for the UK of the Dutch ban and to explore the pressures on the UK government to ban khat.

“You say that 'the overwhelming scientific evidence against a ban' was ignored. We made clear in the programme that the official reviews by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and the World Health Organisation did not believe that there was sufficient evidence of harm to recommend its control.

“But we were also aware that these bodies do not give khat a completely clean bill of health either. For instance, in his covering letter to Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary at the time, the ACMD Chairman, Professor Sir Michael Rawlins, writes that although the Council did not recommend control "that is not to say that use of khat is without detrimental effects and its use should be discouraged."

Catha edulis, khat

“We felt it legitimate to reflect in our programme that a section of the Somali community in the UK who are campaigning for a ban believe that khat is harmful. They focus in particular on the psychological harm that they perceive it can cause among excessive users. We felt it was fair to report some of the anecdotal evidence they cited - and included the campaigner whose brother is receiving psychiatric treatment and the psychiatrist who has long experience of working in the Somali community. However, we prefaced this by reporting the conclusions of the 2005 ACMD report on psychiatric harm, namely that there was some evidence that chronic use was associated with psychological symptoms, but there was a lack of robust evidence.

“You objected to our description of one contributor as a 'former addict'. That is how he describes himself and his condition, and we had no reason to doubt his description. Although the evidence on addiction seems to be poorly understood, the 2005 ACMD report says there is evidence that some individuals use khat in a dependent way even though this is not the case for the majority of users. And the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction also says "excessive consumption can lead to dependence" and that "some users do exhibit compulsive patterns of consumption similar to those seen in stimulant addicts".

“We did not record an interview with anyone who felt that a ban would be a mistake who we subsequently dropped, although in the course of our research we spoke to more people than those we subsequently arranged to interview, as is our usual practice.

“You say that the reporter suggested that there was involvement of terrorists in the marketing of khat, despite being told by a very senior policeman that there was no evidence of this. In the programme we let the Swedish policeman and another terrorism expert speak for themselves. What is clear from both of those interviewees is that there are suspicions that the proceeds from the Khat trade make their way to terrorist groups. The interviewees do make it clear that there is no conclusive evidence for this and they suggest that it is difficult to get such evidence because, essentially, it is difficult to trace the money, although one of our interviewees says that there is "more than circumstantial" evidence for this. We were clear in the programme that all this is unproven.

“It is not for us to suggest whether criminalisation is the right course for the UK or not and we did not seek to do so.

“Our programme is undoubtedly not the last word on this issue.

“Many thanks for raising your reflections on the programme with us."

I won’t go through the BBC’s response in detail but there are a few points that I want to draw attention to.

Catha edulis, khat

The general point is that the whole tone of the response is steeped in the prohibitionist mindset. There's no question that, in some circumstances, khat chewing can cause problems but it is very blinkered to see only one way to address those problems; classification.

It’s good that they acknowledge (‘fair to report some of the anecdotal evidence’) that they used anecdote but I’ve always viewed the term ‘anecdotal evidence’ as an oxymoron. I looked to see if my viewed was shared by others and found this ‘Anecdotal evidence is often used in place of clinical or scientific evidence, and may completely ignore research or harder evidence that points to an opposite conclusion’  .

What the programme did, however, was present only anecdotes from those whose use had become problematic. There were no anecdotes from regular users who have not suffered any ill effects as a result. Presenting only information about heavy users distorts the conclusions listeners will reach. Equally, saying ‘We felt it legitimate to reflect in our programme that a section of the Somali community in the UK who are campaigning for a ban believe that khat is harmful’ is a tacit acknowledgement that they didn’t reflect the views of those in the Somali community who believe khat chewing sessions help to hold that community together.

I think the sentence that most interests me is ‘We did not record an interview with anyone who felt that a ban would be a mistake who we subsequently dropped’. When I spoke to Prof David Nutt in Kent, he said he had been contacted by the programme makers and offered his thoughts. I’ve contacted Prod Nutt to ask if his comments were recorded. It seems odd to me that a programme maker wouldn’t record the comments of the country’s leading expert on drug policy in case he said something useful.

The response on terrorism is disappointingly 'Daily Mail’ in its tone. It's like saying ‘There’s no evidence about terrorists in the khat trade but no-one can prove they aren’t involved so it’s OK to infer they are’.

There were a couple of points that didn’t get a response. There is no explanation for failing to challenge Mark Lancaster MP about his lack of knowledge about khat imports. 

But, it is the lack of a response to one other part of my complaint that I find interesting. It has been suggested that US pressure is behind moves to classify khat in this country and I complained that the programme didn’t even consider that. The response also doesn’t consider it.

I’m well aware of the influence of the position of the observer over what is seen but it appears to me that the unnamed ‘editor’ who responded to my complaint can’t see anything wrong in approaching the issue from the view that khat should be banned and, thus, fails to see what was wrong about the way the programme was biased towards the prohibition agenda.