British Somalis dread ‘herbal high’ khat ban

September 6, 2013
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A bunch of khat ready for sale/FILE
A bunch of khat ready for sale/FILE
LONDON, Sept 6 – When Britain bans the herbal stimulant khat, Mohamod Ahmed Mohamed will lose his livelihood. But he fears most for his small Somali community without the leaf that fuels its social life.

“I can switch to another business but what about the youth, where are they going to go — the street, the mosque, to hard drugs?” he says at his khat warehouse near London’s Heathrow airport.

“You are taking away their freedom. Why target us? You will never find somebody falling over on the street or fighting from khat like they do when they are drunk.”

Mohamed supplies khat to many of Britain’s 100,000 Somalis, as well as to Ethiopians and Yemenis living here, for whom chewing the bushy shrub is as normal as going to the pub.

His growing company takes more than £500,000 ($780,000, 580,000 euros) in monthly revenues from the stimulant, which provides a euphoric, alert sensation.

But the forklift trucks moving hundreds of boxes of khat could soon be stilled after the British government announced it would ban khat, against the advice of its own experts.

— Outlawed —

News of the ban, which has yet to pass through parliament, came as a shock to the communities who chew khat in Britain.

Khat, also called miraa, has been chewed for centuries in the Horn of Africa. Its psychoactive ingredients, cathinone and cathine, are similar to amphetamines but weaker, and can help chewers stay awake and talkative.

“I chew on a Friday — it’s like going to the pub,” said Mohamed.

One of his workers chimed in: “It’s not a drug. It’s like eating a salad.”

Since khat must be chewed fresh, Mohamed’s is a slick operation.

Khat is flown to Heathrow from Kenya the day after it is picked; middlemen collect it from Mohamed to sell around the country and it can be in the mouths of chewers by evening.

For them, khat costs from £2.50 ($3.90, 2.90 euros) a bundle, each one wrapped in a banana leaf.

Men chew khat in communal rooms called mafrishes, while some women chew at home.

At a mafrish near Mohamed’s warehouse, men chew and drink soft drinks, watch football and discuss events in Somalia and their jobs in London.

“I don’t go to nightclubs, I don’t want to stay home. This is my place,” said one 23-year-old chewer, who asked not to be named.

“People come here to talk about their problems. If they don’t have a place for this, they will fall into the wrong hands,” said the mafrish manager, who would only be identified as Fouad.

He worries about young people turning to radical Islam, which he said was preached by some mosques in the area.

In a few cases, British Muslims have travelled to Somalia to fight with the Al-Qaeda-linked militant group Al-Shebab.

“Here is one place where we can talk to people who are turning radical. We can talk them around,” said Fouad.

He dismissed reports that khat helps fund Al-Shebab, and the government’s drug advisory group has also said such claims lack evidence.

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