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Khat is now a Class C Controlled Drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

18 Jul 2014


Khat is now a Class C Controlled Drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971


By Anne Franc


What is khat?

Khat refers to the young leaves and shoots of the khat tree (Catha edulis), cultivated in the highlands of the Horn of Africa, Southern Arabia and along the East African Coast. In parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Yemen, khat leaves have been chewed for centuries for their mildly stimulating properties and for many people native to those regions khat use is a regular part of social life. Migration from the Horn of Africa has been associated with a spread of khat to neighbouring countries, Europe, the USA and Canada and the rest of the world.


A unit of khat is known as a ‘piece’ or bundle. There is no fixed weight for a bundle, but it has been described as consisting of about 40 leafed stems.  The majority of khat users are purported to chew 1 or 2 bundles of khat in an average chewing session.


There are Somali, Yemeni and Ethiopian communities spread across the UK and there are also hundreds of ‘khat cafes’ around the UK where men from those communities go to chew khat, a pastime which is generally considered an integral part of their culture.


Why has khat been classified as a class C drug and made illegal?

Banning khat in the UK brings us in line with many EU countries and the USA. In Europe khat is currently controlled in over half of the EU member states and in Scandinavia and it has been illegal in the USA for several years.


The official Home Office reason for the ban (Home Office fact sheet) is that:

“Khat contains natural ingredients which are already controlled drugs both in the UK and internationally because they are harmful. To help protect local communities from the potential health and social harms associated with khat and to ensure that the UK does not become a hub for international khat smuggling, it will become illegal to produce, possess, supply and import or export khat without a Home Office licence.”


Health issues

The health issues relating to the ban are not at all clear cut and The ACMD (The Advisary Council for the Misuse of Drugs), the body that advises the government on which drugs should be controlled and why, concluded in its report that: "Beyond contradictory anecdotal statements no credible evidence has been found to show a direct causal relationship between khat and the various harms for which its consumption is claimed to be responsible."


UK hub for international khat smuggling

The threat of the UK becoming a hub for international khat smuggling is probably a far more pertinent reason for the decision to control khat, with several cases of large scale khat smuggling to the USA having gone through the UK courts in the last couple of years. Some security experts have even argued that African extremist groups such as  al-Shabab have profited from the export and sale of khat, a belief which has much credence in the USA.


What was the legal situation before the ban?

Prior to this ban, khat could be legally imported into the UK and its use was also perfectly legal. The importation of khat was even subject to VAT. Khat was imported into the UK from Kenya, Ethiopia and Yemen and HMRC sources suggest that shipments arrived regularly several times a week from Kenya and less frequently but regularly from Ethiopia and Yemen. HMRC figures for 2010 suggest that the total volume of khat consignments imported per week into the UK was 57.7 tonnes (equivalent to 9136 boxes – 7000 from Kenya and the rest from Ethiopia and Yemen combined).


Previously, when khat arriving at Heathrow had cleared HMRC it was transported to a nearby warehouse, where legitimate dealers and distributors would collect their consignments before distributing them to hundreds of retailers throughout London and other UK cities. The retail trade was said to be fragmented with most retailers taking three to four boxes of khat at a time, retailing individual bundles of Kenyan khat at between £3 and £6.


What is the legal situation now?

From 24 June 2014, police are now able to use ‘khat warnings’ and ‘Penalty Notices for Disorder’ (PND) for adults. This means that if the police find someone with khat which is meant for their own personal use they can:


The ban on khat will apply to public and private places so, unlike the situation with licenced cannabis cafes in the Netherlands, it will not be legal to chew khat in khat cafes in the UK.


If people continue to trade in khat after the ban now that it has become a Class C controlled drug, then the police will take action and they risk prosecution. As a Class C drug, it is now illegal to supply, possess with intent to supply, and import khat. Penalties for these offences are up to 14 years' imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both. Supplying khat to friends, even if it is given away, is also considered as ‘supplying’ under the law.


What problems could the ban on khat bring?

Forensic Equity's leading drug expert believes that the control of khat could lead to some significant legal issues.


Incorrect identification

The Home Office fact sheet on khat suggests that they expect police officers to police khat in the same way as they currently police cannabis. However, cannabis has a characteristic appearance and police officers have been trained to recognise it. Most police officers will never have encountered khat and its appearance. In the opinion of our drugs expert, is not characteristic enough to allow it to be identified by visual appearance alone. It could be mistaken for spinach or some sort of salad leaf. We believe that the only way to be sure that what someone has in their possession is khat is to have it analysed by an  independent forensic services provider to confirm that it contains cathinone its major active ingredient.


Charged with possession or supply of an illegal substance?

With regards to the amount of khat that a person is found with, where will the police draw the line between possession (a relatively minor offence) and supply (a much more serious one)? With cannabis the amounts needed for personal use are relatively well defined but not prescribed. For khat the situation will be very unclear, as the amount of khat needed to have the desired effect will be far greater than that needed for cannabis. Cannabis users consume cannabis in hundreds of milligram (one thousandth of a gram) amounts in one cannabis cigarette (reefer), while khat users could consume khat in hundreds of gram amounts in one chewing session.


If you want to know more about khat, whether from the perspective of the prosecution or defence, please contact us

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