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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 31st March 2014

I don’t think I will ever achieve the accolade of ‘tireless campaigner’, the cliché much loved by TV news magazine programmes and the press to describe someone who keeps banging on about the same thing in spite of, apparently, having no effect for a very long time.

Although I’ve written about Catha edulis, khat, twelve times since Theresa May’s announcement that she was going to ignore all the experts and classify khat under the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) I am far from ‘tireless’. I’m actually sick and tired of reading the same misinformation and lies from the Home Secretary.

The latest comes in her response to the Home Affairs Select Committee report calling for khat to be regulated to deal with the very small minority of problem users. Perhaps, I’d do better if I tirelessly campaigned for the recognition of my acronym, ‘BIss’. Because then all I would need to do was say that Ms May had written a BIss letter to the HASC and everyone would know that I meant the arguments made in the letter were spurious and it could be summarised by saying ‘Because I say so’.

Catha edulis, khat

Since we’re not in that position, I shall have to take you through some of the specific areas where Ms May is hoping to sell her lies as countering the sense of both the scientific experts of the ACMD and the members of the HASC.

The full letter has been published by the HASC but I’ll quote from it to illustrate my points. What follows is a selection and is based on the order of the letter not their importance. The first selection is not of great importance to the issue but is a perfect illustration of what I mean by BIss.

The fourth paragraph reads;

‘The Government has developed a wider framework to address the concerns and issues associated with khat and support the affected communities in England. I set this out in my further response to the advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to Government on khat, published on 20 November 2013, which the Committee appears not to have seen prior to issuing its report.' (emphasis added)

In other words, May is saying that the only reason for the HASC to disagree with her has to be because it has not read what she was written on the subject. Her view is, obviously, above challenge so the HASC’s challenge to it can only be based on not having seen her perfect logic.

Then, in the fifth paragraph, the Home Secretary talks about the activities of those claiming to speak for the Somali community who have welcomed her announcement of the ban. She says ‘They represent large sections of the British Somali diaspora’ without there being any evidence to justify that claim. As we know, the ACMD found that there was no clear view amongst that community and, as I have pointed out, TV footage of rallies organised  by Abukar Awale to show support for May's decision show about a dozen people trying to huddle close together and look like a crowd and a rally during the consideration of the ban attracted about 100 of the 100,000 or so Somalis in the UK.

Catha edulis, khat

The sixth paragraph begins by acknowledging that the decision has not been universally welcomed by referring to the ‘representations made on behalf of the Kenyan Government’ but makes no mention of the law suit being brought by a leading khat importer who fears for the damage to his legitimate, tax-paying business and the lives of those who work for him and elsewhere in the industry.

But it is the last sentence of that paragraph that stands out.

‘However, we cannot ignore the facts that the UK's current position is being exploited by the international khat trafficking trade and that this places UK interests at risk.’

In her original decision and in other announcements, May has talked about what she believes would be a future problem of the UK becoming a trafficking hub. At the time, I pointed out that you cannot counter an argument that says I can predict the future but you can’t. I also noted that there would be those who took the prediction of a future situation and reported it as a present fact. And here we have May herself doing this with ‘is being exploited’ as though the UK is already a centre for the criminal shipment of khat to countries that have imposed bans.

Having stated that a future problem is current, she immediately undermines herself by saying, in the next paragraph, that;

‘It remains clear to me that without robust Government intervention to tackle this issue the UK will be at serious risk of becoming a single, regional hub for the smuggling of khat to countries which have banned it to protect their own citizens from harm.’

Catha edulis, khat

This, of course, is the core problem with the stated reasons for her decision. The people who ship khat to countries where it is banned are involved in criminal activities. There can be no assumption that they will pay any attention to the extension of the criminality of those activities to include khat in the UK rather than in the destination countries.

It is in dealing with the HASC’s specific conclusions that May makes the point that gives me the greatest rage. In trying to say that she is concerned to provide support to those who are being harmed by excessive khat use and those affected by it she says that she has set out ‘the escalation framework for the proportionate and consistent policing of khat possession offences, supported by timely Government messaging and targeted communications about the risks associated with khat and the services locally available for users and their families’.

This is the claim that the police will be encouraged to use discretion when dealing with simple possession. I have two concerns with that. The first is that there are already far too many laws that are not enforced. If a law is justified it should be enforced. If it isn’t justified it should not exist. What is not acceptable is for someone to make an arbitrary decision about whether to enforce or not. If government ministers are happy promoting the notion that laws can be ignored they cannot expect the public at large to have respect for the law.

That’s a philosophical point about society and the law but my second concern is much more pragmatic and troubling. There has been a great deal recently, both in terms of anecdotes and in properly researched studies, showing that the police cannot be trusted to use discretion without doing so in a racially biased way.

Catha edulis, khat

Having turned to matters that have impacts beyond the issue of khat itself there’s a truly amazing lie in the third paragraph of her response to the HASC’s first three conclusions.

May says;

‘we have committed to reviewing the impact of our policies’

And then says;

‘We do so for all drugs’

Say, what? This government, like its predecessors, has consistently refused to conduct an impact assessment of the workings of the MDA. Claiming that it regularly reviews the impact of drug policy is simply a lie and, what makes her more ridiculous, one that is very easy to spot.

But, maybe, there is one small piece of good news. It involves believing something that appeared on the Mail Online website and I’ve careful about the hypocrisy of accepting something from that site as factual when I spend a lot of time condemning it for its lies and distortions. I’m not, therefore, saying that the story that appeared, yesterday, is bound to be true though the fact that it did appear on a Sunday, meaning it comes from the Mail on Sunday rather than the Daily Mail, does give me higher confidence.

The Mail on Sunday reports that the recently appointed Home Office minister with responsibility for drug policy, Norman Baker, a LibDem, is not taking the lead on the implementation of the khat ban, a decision made before his appointment. This was already clear from his evidence to a previous session of the HASC. But the Mail on Sunday goes further and claims that Baker has told May that he opposes the scheduling. If a serving government minister is prepared to say drug policy is wrong (rather than waiting until no longer in office before saying it as happens all too often) then there is a small chink of hope.

Because the issue is not about whether khat should be scheduled under the Misuse of Drugs Act but why the MDA continues to exist in its present form. A complete overhaul of drug policy based on the evidence for harm reduction instead of moral dogma and political expediency is something for which tireless campaigning is worthwhile.


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