Sussing out the dope on khat

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    Sussing out the dope on khat

    HEATHER Douglas's interest in khat -- catha edulis -- was piqued by newspaper reports last year of women from Melbourne's East African Women's Foundation pushing to ban the mildly narcotic leaf, saying it was contributing to domestic violence in the city's Somali community.

    Khat, a chewable leaf produced by a shrub, is grown and widely used in Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya. In these countries it is used mainly by men, and although it is known for its pleasurable effects, there are claims it triggers mood swings.

    Douglas, an associate professor from the TC Beirne School of Law, applied for research funding to investigate khat use in Australia, and with Sydney Medical School associate professor Nic Lintzeris was granted $78,000 by the National Drug Law Enforcement Research Fund to explore the legal and policing issues concerning the drug. "I thought it would be useful to do some research with the police about what they know about this drug," Douglas says. "It turns out they have had a watching brief for a couple of years. But some police have no idea about it."

    Although under Australian law it is legal to import up to 5kg a month of khat for personal use, laws relating to the drug vary between states.

    In Queensland, the ACT, Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia, it is illegal to possess khat, but that is not the case in NSW and Victoria.

    There are also varying attitudes across the international community.

    "In 2005 the Law Commission in the UK looked at this in quite some depth but went for a harm minimisation approach, focusing on a health management approach. In the US they have gone the opposite way and outlawed it."

    The research will include interviewing police in NSW, Victoria and Queensland.

    Douglas expects the awareness of the drug to be highest in Victoria because of its sizeable Somali minority. Queensland also has a growing African community, in Townsville and in Brisbane's western suburbs.

    "Part of the project will try to develop protocols for policing, for example, whether or not it is something they should search for if they are called to a domestic disturbance, which would mean they would have to be able to identify it.

    "We also want to talk to focus groups of members of those communities to ask them about their experiences of the drug and how it has affected them.

    "The main point of the program is to look at law enforcement questions, but we are hoping to provide information, too."

    Jill Rowbotham
    The Australian December 01, 2009

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