The Home Affairs select committee’s drugs follow-up session last Tuesday highlighted the Government’s inconsistent and uninformed approach to drugs policy. The MPs and public audience heard from senior police officers, a drugs charity and a documentary maker, who subsequently revealed the true scope and dangers of legal highs, or “legal psychoactive substances”. But there was a clear sense at the end of the session that the committee had been left with more questions than answers.
It also revealed that those responsible for policy-making, law enforcement and the education of young people continue to play catch-up in a country where 27 new legal psychoactive substances had been identified by toxicologists in the last year alone, according to the ACPO lead on psychoactive substances, Commander Simon Bray. The session finished however, with a discussion concerning substantive government policy regarding the ‘war on drugs’ - the controversial banning of khat. What became apparent was the continuing disconnect between the Government’s policy direction and the official advice and evidence it receives, as well as a tendency to bury its head in the sand when the context becomes nuanced.
A moment midway through the session illustrated the distance that exists between Westminster and the society that it represents. When Keith Vaz MP asked Dan Reed, the director of the Channel 4 documentary “Legally High: True Stories”, for the cheapest legal psychoactive he had come across when researching for his film, Reed named a drug that could be bought for just £10 per gram. The subsequent confusion this caused the panel was not due to any concern about the availability and affordability of the drug, but by a lack of knowledge about the size of a gram. Dan Reed was forced to explain that the MPs’ suggestions that a Smarties tube or a table spoon might equate to a gram, were crudely inaccurate. It was worrying to witness how the significance of his previous answer was lost in the uncertainty that it created.
Young people will be surprised that such ignorance still exists. It would be rare to find a university student in the UK who has not consumed, handled or seen others taking legal/illegal psychoactive substances. Paul Flynn’s suggestion that this social phenomenon can be attributed to the age-old assumption that “youngsters court danger, thinking they are immortal”, was overly simplistic. It was countered by Maryon Stewart of the Angelus Foundation, who spoke with experience and authority when she explained that teenagers and young adults who take legal highs are “not all wanting to risk their lives but just want to have some fun.”
Stewart set up the Angelus Foundation in 2009, following the death of her daughter Hester, who had taken the legal high GBL on a night out at university. The Foundation’s mission statement is “to help society understand the dangers of ‘legal highs’ (unclassified substances), to reduce the harm they cause to young people and their families and to save lives”. Stewart described the increasing instances of deaths and harm caused by the substances, which ranged from drug-induced comas to individuals being sectioned for psychotic episodes. Her foundation continues to be “baffled” by the fact that “no action is being taken” by the Government. The problems facing young people who are tempted to take these drugs, often a cocktail of “Class B drugs and toxic chemicals”, arise from the fact that there is a lack of real information available to both the parents and the users themselves, who Stewart described as “playing Russian roulette with their lives”.
The laissez-faire attitude the Government takes with legal highs could not be in starker contrast to its draconian approach to khat, the African chewable plant.
The Government’s prohibition of khat has serious implications both here in the UK and in Kenya, which exports £15 million worth of the plant for British consumption every year. Understandably, there is widespread concern in a country where half a million workers rely on the khat industry for employment, leading to the Kenyan Government providing £40,000 of legal funding to the lawsuit attempting to overturn the ban.
Mithika Linturi, a Kenyan MP representing a constituency in Meru (the khat producing region of Kenya), explained to me why Meru County had provided its own independent funding of approximately £15,000 to the lawsuit. He feared that with half a million jobs lost, “the probability of many engaging in crime is very high” and that the economic problems would also have a knock-on effect with regards to the country’s ongoing and complex counter-terrorist commitments. Linturi believed a crucial determinant in the radicalisation of Kenyans was “hopelessness”, especially amongst those who are “young and not economically engaged”.
Despite his lack of contact with powdered substances over the years, Vaz was quick to point out to his fellow MPs and members of the public that he had chewed khat on a trip to Yemen, but that it had had no effect on him. This simple statement revealed two important features of the consumption of khat: firstly that it is a cultural norm to chew the plant in many Somali, Yemeni and Ethiopian communities; and secondly that there is little evidence to suggest that the mild stimulant can cause serious personal harm to its users. When Paul Garlick QC, representing the khat trader Mahamud Ahmed Mohammed, told the committee that there was no evidence of adverse social or personal harm caused by khat, he echoed the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). Their February report advised that as a result of “no direct causal link to adverse medical effects” khat should not be banned under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. The fact that almost no genuine social problems were caused by the plant was reinforced at the beginning of the session by Chief Constable Andy Bliss, the ACPO lead on drugs, who explained that there was “limited evidence between khat and criminal behaviour”, bar instances of “spitting and littering”.
At the time of the ban, Jon Manning, writing for the New Statesman, was right to ask why the Home Secretary, Theresa May, “chose to ignore such scientific evidence”. He argued that fears expressed by the Government that the UK could become a khat “smuggling hub” were at odds with HMRC VAT figures that the ACMD quote in their report. Given that, as Manning, Mohammed, Garlick and others have suggested, there will be no significant decrease in demand for the stimulant, it is important to consider the social impact the ban may have on communities in the UK.
The Home Office claim the ban is based upon a commitment to “protect vulnerable members of our communities”, yet to pass legislation that means whole communities will fall foul of criminal law for the first time seems extraordinarily counter-intuitive and reflects the punitive undercurrent of the Government’s policy decisions. With demand expected to remain relatively stable, who will replace previously legitimate traders such as Mahamud Ahmed Mohammed? With post-ban prices expected to increase a hundredfold according to Paul Garlick, it is feared organised crime will become central to supply networks, which will have devastating consequences for Yemeni, Somali and Ethiopian communities.
When asked why he thought that May had taken the decision against official advice, Garlick said he believed the Home Secretary hadn’t “spent significant time looking at the evidence”. The charity group Drugscope were disappointed with the original move to criminalise the use of the plant, suggesting a “more proportionate alternative” would have been “an import ban or making it a supply offence only as it applies, for example, to controlled anabolic steroids”.
What became apparent from the Home Affairs Select Committee session is that the Government has no clear policy direction when it comes to drugs. Muhamud Ahmed Mohammed’s lawsuit has described the decision as “incompatible with the Convention rights, under the Human Rights Act 1998, of the claimant and other members of the ethnic communities throughout the UK in which the use of khat is part of a long-standing and established social, cultural and ethnic custom and tradition”.
To ban a substance that has cultural significance in our own communities while doing almost nothing to protect society from the dangers and ignorance surrounding new legal psychoactive substances seems both confused and cowardly. It is estimated that a new legal high, whether a newly-created chemical compound or simply an analogue of a previous drug, is produced and distributed every fortnight. The overwhelming feature of the situation is the lack of state classification and user knowledge. When we consider that khat has been consumed responsibly within communities for generations and is now a criminal activity, but dangerous psychoactive substances continue to be consumed by young people without the Government taking any form of coherent approach towards the matter, it raises serious questions about its motivations and approach to drugs policy.