U.K. Ban on Khat Affects Kenya

Khat leaves form Kenya. (Photo: Neil Palmer)

A major diplomatic row is brewing between the United Kingdom and Kenya because the United Kingdom is banning the sale of khat. Khat is a high-value stimulant crop with greenish leaves and short reddish-brown twigs that are plucked from the main branches of the khat tree. The leaves and the bark of the twigs are chewed to give the brain a stimulating effect. Many khat users in Britain boil the leaf and drink the hot water or mix it with a hot beverage.

Users of khat feel more alert, happy and talkative. Heavy use can lead to insomnia, high blood pressure, heart problems and mouth cancer. It can also induce anxiety, aggression, and paranoid and psychotic reactions. Khat suppresses the appetite and can make pre-existing health problem worse. For these reasons Britain is banning the crop.

The British government is set to classify khat as a Class-C drug, next to others that include anabolic steroids, benzodiazepine, GHB and GBL, and ketamine. Under U.K. classification, Class-C drugs are the least serious but still illegal. The prohibition will come into force June 25, and those found in possession either for export or consumption will face punishment. First offenders will be given a warning. Second offenders will pay a fine of 60 pounds. The third offense will be punishable by two years in prison.

A good share of the khat in the country is flown in from Kenya, and Kenyan farmers who supply the drug fear that the ban of khat will lead to mass job loss in Kenya, among many young people especially, making them an easy target for Al Shabaab recruitment. Many of the traders are migrants from Somalia.

Kimathi Kiunjuri, spokesman of the product's largest exporter Sakijo International, says about 80 tons are exported to the United Kingdom per week, bringing in about $470,000 per consignment. The crop, mainly grown in Meru, is the economic backbone of that region. Data from Horticultural Crops Development Authority show that at least 550,948 kilograms of khat were exported in 2012.

Before the United Kingdom imposed the ban on khat, Kenyan farmers and traders sought a court order to stop Britain's Secretary Theresa May from enacting any legislation to ban khat, but they lost their case on the first hearing. Following the decision to ban the stimulant, some Kenyan khat farmers have threatened violence against the British government. The farmers want land owned by the British Army as well as wheat, barley and farms held by Brits in Timau, Meru. They have also threatened to push the British government from a military base in Nanyuki.

The United Kingdom was the only remaining export market in Europe for khat after the Netherlands banned it in 2012. The Kenya National Authority for the Campaign Against Drug Abuse estimates that Kenyan traders earn $60 million a year from the stimulant. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that the United Kingdom has become a key smuggling route for khat into Europe and North America as well. U.K. officials hope that the ban will stop traffickers from using its port.

An estimated 500,000 Kenyans depend on khat cultivation for their livelihood, although many of these people make their living from domestic supply and consumption, which presumably would be unaffected by the U.K. ban. Kenyan farmers and traders are prepared to appeal their case at the European Court of Justice.

Given the insecurity in Somalia, khat business has been on the slow. Al Shabaab militiamen attack khat transporters at the Kenya-Somalia border and come away with the whole consignment. Kimathi said, "Our biggest fear is the trickle-down effect," with anti-khat measures crushing the remaining markets in Kenya.