More Somali migrants say Britain should ban khat
Britain's large Somali community chews at least seven tons a week of a drug banned in most Western countries.
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Except for a few Mars Bars, they preside over a shop conspicuous for its lack of confectionary.
Customers instead make a beeline for two large fridges packed with tightly wrapped green bundles of khat – the Horn of Africa's favorite drug.
"It arrived this morning, but you must chew it in two or three days or it will go bad," one of the shopkeepers says as he passes a £4 ($6) bundle of the narcotic leaf to an eager-looking customer.
But community campaigners, backed by psychiatrists and a warning from the World Health Organization, have long believed that one of the active ingredients, cathonine, can lead to mental problems among regular users and have called for Britain to join much of the developed world by banning the drug.
Some of the most vocal critics of the drug have emerged recently from within the Somali community here. Khat, they say, is not only bringing harm to individuals, but it's also stymieing wider integration efforts.
"My people are in trouble because of this drug and I tell you ... London hasn't seen the worst of it," says Abdi Hussein, a young Somali migrant and former addict.
Thus far, Britain's Home Office has parried arguments for controlling khat, saying it is a mild narcotic and an innocent cultural past time with few proven social or medical ills.
'Khat has slowly been killing our community'
Each week, according to a widely cited but likely outdated government estimate, around seven tons of the leafy stimulant arrives at Heathrow Airport from the khat fields of Ethiopia and Kenya, to be whisked to khat cafes, known as mafreshis, frequented by many of Britain's 250,000-strong Somali migrant community, as well as the country's smaller Ethiopian and Yemeni groups.
Chewers devour up to two pounds of the leaf in a session. Similar to the chewing of cocoa leaves among Andean people, khat use is a centuries-old tradition originating in East Africa and the Arabian peninsula.
It has a social function of lubricating political debate and religious study – early users reportedly included Koran scholars – as well as quelling hunger in a poor corner of the world. In a Western context, the role of khat is less clear. A growing clamor of voices favor a ban amid concerns that the drug is wreaking havoc in Britain's large Somali population.
"Khat has slowly been killing our community but no one has paid any attention, until now," says former khat addict Abukar Awali. At the height of his habit, Mr. Awali says he chewed up to eight pounds of leaves daily.
"It's no exaggeration to say it is preventing us from integrating," he says. "When you chew, you don't work or meet anyone apart from Somalis. Maybe 80 percent of our men chew khat. When you are not chewing, you become paranoid and depressed. Everybody in my community knows someone with a khat problem; they are just afraid to say it."