Framing British Drug Policy

Ian McGonigle | 30 October 2014 | Respond
Khat functions not simply as the drug molecule cathinone, but rather as a nexus where fears of immigration, illicit international trade, Islamic terrorism, and ethnic segregation collide with purely medical consideration.

Khat functions not simply as the drug molecule cathinone, but rather as a nexus where fears of immigration, illicit international trade, Islamic terrorism, and ethnic segregation collide with purely medical consideration.

The effectiveness and legitimacy of British drug control policy are both in serious question. This March the latest assessments of the harmfulness of so-called “legal highs” came under attack by Prof David Nutt and Dr Les King. They used the term “sloppy science” to partially account for the misuse of figures on the number of deaths resulting from legal highs, but it is now clear that drug control in Britain suffers from deeper problems. Expert medical opinion is routinely ignored while conservative opinion and vested political values sometimes prevail. Politics seems to have displaced science in the realm of drug policy, with the result that some drugs that should be controlled are not while others that pose little or no danger are. It is therefore high time to dig into the mechanics of drug policy, asking what drives decisions and how a faulty framing of the issues can lead to perverse outcomes. The herbal high “khat” provides a good example.

In July 2013 the UK government banned khat, an herbal stimulant plant that contains an amphetamine-like compound called cathinone. The pleasurable effects of chewing khat leaves are not unlike alcohol. They include increased libido, talkativeness and gregariousness, along with the inhibition of hunger, anxiety, and fatigue. Khat has been chewed recreationally in the Arabian Peninsula and the horn of Africa – where it is autochthonous – for centuries. In Yemen and Somalia, khat is particularly associated with sessions where men gather to chew in group settings. Such chewing sessions resemble in some respects the public sphere of the coffeehouses of the European Enlightenment. These sessions foster a form of civic participation predicated on friendly discussion and debate on issues of shared communal interest (1).

Khat is a controlled substance in most of Northern Europe, the US, and Canada, although it is legal in Israel, most of Africa, and South America. And khat recently became an object of concern in the UK, after so-called ‘khat pubs’ (mafrishes), popular with Somali, Yemeni, and Ethiopian immigrants, spread across the country. In the mafrish, people gather to chew khat, spend time together, and socialize among peers. Since many of these chewers are Muslims, the mafrish phenomenon’s spread in Britain has sparked fears that these spaces may be incubating ground for Islamic terror networks (2).

In July of 2013 the UK government decided to ban khat, flying in the face of medical expert opinion and ignoring the advice of its own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). An ACMD report found that “the harms of khat does [sic] not [sic] reach the level required for classification,” and concluded that compared with other popular recreational substances, such as alcohol, tobacco, or cannabis, khat indeed presents a very low risk of harm (Fig. 1; 3, 4).

Instead of making its decision based on the low risk to health, the Home Secretary cited “broader concerns,” such as clamping down on the UK’s possible role as a channel for khat export to other countries where khat is already banned, and so to further alignment with other G8 and EU countries’ drug policies (5). Though the logic underpinning the ban is no longer medical, the UK still treats khat as a class C drug, a classification normally based on health concerns, making it illegal to supply or possess, and criminalizing the communities that use khat recreationally.

Anthropologist Axel Klein (6) claims that the ban will in fact promote crime, not reduce it. By pushing organized khat trade underground, the UK action will spur illegal smuggling; and by eliminating a sanctioned social space for chewing, the ban will drive Muslims into the mosques, increasing the religious authorities’ grip on communal activities, thereby seeding fundamentalism. The message to East Africans and Yemenis is that one of their most valued social traditions is not welcome in the UK, echoing the government’s anti-immigration policy.

More importantly, the ban demonstrates the British state’s ability to weigh the personal sovereignty of its citizens against its own sovereign power to dictate what sorts of subjects there should be. When it comes to recreational drug consumption, sovereignty weighs in favor of the legal homogeneity of the global North over the cultural heritage of immigrant groups. The khat ban thus provides a window into the logic of global governance and the captive role of science in state rhetorics of justification. In this case a formal apparatus of public health protection – drug classification – is deployed, even though the scientific evidence it delivers is set aside for the sake of a regime of political control. Khat functions not simply as the drug molecule cathinone that entails health effects of negligible concern, but rather as a nexus where fears of immigration, illicit international trade, Islamic terrorism, and ethnic segregation collide with purely medical consideration.

As a hybrid of relationships between facts and politics, khat should not be seen either as a potentially risky pharmacological entity or as disputed focus of international law. In the khat ban, a state legitimately committed to protecting its citizens’ health and well-being took advantage of the apparatus of public health decision making to enact a policy that rests on an altogether different logic: the Class C classification was deployed to protect the British community against imagined terrorism and threatened cultural fragmentation. Even while the traditional British pub falls victim to deregulation and loss of community, the khat pub was banned as a locus of undesirable socialization and civic activity.

As a site of contradiction, the khat ban highlights how drug policy aimed at reducing harm to individuals can rub up against deeper political currents such that the facts determined by experts may get supplanted by the political sensibilities of international Realpolitik. Science and technology studies (STS) scholars are trained to read such contradictions carefully and to map the “boundary work” carried out when a substance is framed as either a pernicious drug, a promoter of anti-social behavior, or a global policy issue, especially when boundaries are drawn at the cost of a broader debate on citizens’ cultural and political rights in a diverse society.

The field of STS works to knock down the walls between science, politics, and policy, elucidating connections that have escaped notice and opening up a forum for a wider range of critical voices. Indeed STS is centrally concerned with reconnecting science, technology, and society with core democratic values. For British drug control policy, the STS concept of “framing” well illuminates the miscarriage of justice and the decay of democracy at stake in the khat ban. Viewing a harmless social activity as a potential breeding ground for terror, the British state rendered medical expertise a pawn in the hands of power, a rhetorical piece to be used or discarded for political ends. This is a step toward scientific bankruptcy, signaling that science has value for drug policy decisions only if it fits the predetermined political frame. Politicians, policymakers, and regulators must therefore urgently restore the integrity of drug policy, listening to experts when science is at stake and consulting widely when the issues are political. That would help bring drug policy decisions into line with democratic values and indeed with common sense.

Keywords: framing; drug control; khat


  1. Wedeen, L. (2008) Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. McGonigle, I. (2013) Khat: Chewing on a Bitter Controversy. Anthropology Today 29(4): 4-7.
  3. Nutt, D., King, L.A., Saulsbury, W., and C. Blakemore (2007) Development of a Rational Scale to Assess the Harm of Drugs of Potential Misuse. Lancet369(9566): 1047-1053.
  4. ACMD, (2013) Khat: A review of its potential harms to the individual and communities in the UK. London: Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
  5. UK Home Office Announcement (2013)
  6. Klein, A. (2013) The Khat Ban in the UK: What about the ‘Scientific’ Evidence? Anthropology Today 29(5): 6-8.

Further Reading:

  • Anderson, D. et al. (2007) The Khat Controversy: Stimulating the Debate on Drugs. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Jasanoff, S. (Ed.) (2004) States of Knowledge: The Co-production of Science and Social Order. London: Routledge.

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