“Can you imagine what would happen if a Mancunian faced two years in jail for buying a pint of Boddington’s at his local?”
The words of Greater Manchester’s Police Commissioner Tony Lloyd talking about the government’s legislation coming in today that Khat will be classified as a Class C drug, which means that people could be jailed for two years for possessing it.
Khat, until now, has been a legal substance in the UK. It is popular in some African and Arabic communities as its use in parts of Africa and the Middle East is as common as drinking beer is in Greater Manchester.
The Government, says Lloyd, risks criminalising people who have never broken the law in their lives by making the drug khat illegal without an education campaign to inform and support those affected.
The flowering plant Catha edulis is native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Among communities from these areas, khat chewing has a history as a social custom dating back thousands of years. “Tea of the Arabs” users chew the bitter leaves of this natural stimulant. It is supposed to make them more alert and raise energy levels, and its supporters say it is as harmless as coffee or tea.
The government thinks otherwise and with around two and a half thousand tonnes imported to the UK every year wants to crack down on its use saying it speeds up the user’s mind and body, like a less powerful amphetamine and can cause insomnia and temporary confusion as well as making pre-existing mental health problems worse and provoking feelings of anxiety and aggression.
It can also inflame the mouth and damage teeth, and there are concerns about the long-term risk of mouth cancers.
It is widely sold in Somali shops, stalls and Khat houses around Manchester.
“It is, of course” says Lloyd, “up to the Government to decide which drugs are legal and which are not. But when they took the decision to criminalise khat they had a duty to ensure that the decent, law-abiding people who use it knew about this change in the law and what the consequences would be. They have failed abysmally, it’s a shambles.
“I’m pleased to say that Greater Manchester Police are taking the right approach to this and will be engaging with communities where khat is used to educate them about the change in the law. But it is outrageous that the police have had to do the Government’s job. But I’m also calling on the Government – even now – to get up and do what they should have in the first place.”