A drugs expert claims a new Home Office review into the herbal stimulant qat is intended to pave the way for an unjustified ban so that the government can appear tough on drugs.
Qat, which is chewed in leaf form, is popular among Somali, Kenyan, Ethiopian and Yemeni immigrants. There are no figures for its usage but more than seven tonnes a week are imported into the UK, according to estimates.
A 2005 report by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) recommended that the plant should not be a controlled substance in the UK. But last month the Home Office announced that research into its "social harms" would be delivered by the end of the year and be followed by another ACMD assessment.
Dr Axel Klein, an expert witness for the 2005 report, said the study was "superfluous" as there was no new evidence. "What is being dressed up as a scientific inquiry is just a figleaf to provide a justification of a toughening of the rules and to provide Alan Campbell [the drugs minister] with a platform as being tough on drugs."
Based at the University of Kent, Klein is an expert in addictive behaviour. He said the government's reclassification of cannabis from class C back to class B, and the rejection of ACMD advice recommending ecstasy be downgraded, was an indication that qat would be outlawed. "The government has done away with evidence-based policy making on drugs," he said.
Some of the qat imported into the UK goes on to Sweden and the US, where it is illegal. Supporters of a UK ban, including the Conservative party, claim the herb causes psychosis and mouth cancer and is responsible for a range of social ills. The Labour MP Mike Gapes, who says that a substantial number of people in the Somali community back a ban, also wants the drug made illegal.
But David Anderson, professor of African studies at Oxford University, who co-wrote The Qat Controversy with Klein, said: "The medical evidence [of harm] is so flimsy compared to other substances. It's really quite difficult to justify [a ban]."
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