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Khat Ban in Britain

A Yemeni man chews khat in Old Sanaa in October 2009.    MICHELLE SHEPHARD/TORONTO STAR


The Kenyan town of Maua is likely panicking today. Not that it would easy for an outsider to see, as Maua always seems to be in a state of panic, albeit in a strange, business-like way.

Maua, in Meru County in Central Kenya, is one of the world's producers of khat (or qat), a herbal stimulant known by other names including "miraa" in Somalia and Kenya, or "chad" in Ethiopia. The town thrives on the khat trade - a 24/7 business where everyone plays a role. Along with photograph Lucas Oleniuk, we tracked this trade last year, from the khat trees in Maua where the leaves were picked at 4 a.m., to a parking lot north of Toronto where khat was illegally delivered near midnight two days later.

Although almost unheard of in most of the Western world, khat is wildly popular throughout East Africa and Yemen. In Canada and the U.S., khat is illegal but it is still easily found and the law is often overlooked. That's in part because the courts rarely enforce strict sentences. “It’s very difficult to understand why this stuff’s against the law,” Ontario Court Justice Elliott Allen said in a 2011 ruling. “I read everything I can get my hands on about it and find it difficult to be persuaded of anything other than what I was told by a federal Crown attorney when I had my first case, which was: ‘We think this is almost as dangerous as coffee.’ ”

Others, including Britain's home secretary Theresa May, disagree.

May announced this week that khat would become a Class C drug and penalties would be imposed for personal possession. As the Guardian notes, May's decisions "clashes with the expert opinion of her own Advisory Council on the the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which has said there is insufficient evidence to indicate that chewing qat causes health problems, or wider problems in society, to justify imposing a ban in Britain."

Britain was essentially the last Western holdout and the majority of khat trade went through Heathrow. Expect a strong reaction now from Kenya and Ethiopia, the two main khat-exporting countries (and to a smaller extent Yemen, where most of khat is consumed domestically), which stand to lose millions in trade.

Seems there may be some push back in Britain too. David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, writes of what he calls the "moral agenda" of the ban of cats. Oh, not cats? He corrects himself. "Advocates for a ban are sometimes prone to demonise cats qat and, cynically or credulously, to fuel unfounded fears against owners users. Historically, cat owners were persecuted as witches." Read on: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jul/03/ban-qat-theresa-may-ban-cats.

Michelle Shephard is the Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recipient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. And yes, she has chewed khat. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm


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