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Campaigners fear 'disaster' over legal drug khat

TIMEBOMB: Campaigners are concerned that the health dangers of chewing khat are being ignored

A MANCHESTER community group has warned that a legal plant-based drug that is widely used in Britain’s Somali community could lead to addiction and serious health problems.

Members of Manchester based Educate 4 Life believe that khat, a plant native to east Africa, lowers inhibitions with potentially dangerous results. They claim that it’s amphetamine-like substances can lead to insomnia, aggression and mental health problems.

BANNED

When chewed, khat stimulates feelings of mild euphoria and increased energy. It has been banned in America, Canada and most of Europe but it remains legal in Britain.

However, Educate 4 Life’s founders as well as some health experts believe that the regular use of khat by British-based Somali and Yemeni communities is a ‘disaster waiting to happen’.

The group’s co-founder Abdi Saleiman from Moss Side, Manchester was until recently a regular user of the drug. He decided to give it up after he learned about its health dangers and he wants to warn others.

He said: “Khat is a major issue facing the Somali community. People may be reluctant to stop using it but we want to raise awareness of the risks behind it and encourage people to reduce their usage. Previously, it was only used by the older generation, but now it’s more affordable we are seeing younger and younger people doing it.”

ESCAPE

He added: “For men who can’t find work, it is an escape for them every day – the same as people who drink.”

Educate 4 Life’s other co-founder Abdi Osman, 35, who is from the Rusholme area of the city, said: “Using khat every day is a disaster waiting to happen. You can’t eat or sleep and can become paranoid or aggressive. It is also linked to long-term mental health problems and mouth infections. It is mainly men who use it but because it can lead to family break-ups and unemployment and it affects women too.”

Educate 4 Life is working with other community groups, councillors, the local health service and the Greater Manchester Police to build an awareness campaign about khat use.

It is believed that nearly 60 per cent of Somalia’s population and 80 percent of people in Yemen regularly chew khat.

EVIDENCE

Earlier this year, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) released a report saying that there was “insufficient evidence” that khat caused serious health problems and rejected calls for it to be banned in the UK.

However, Professor Kamaldeep Bhui, director of the Cultural Consultation Service at Queen Mary University, London said that the concerns of groups like Educate 4 Life should be taken seriously.

Bhui, one of the experts who submitted evidence to the ACMD which they used to compile the report, claimed that the national debate on khat is based on sketchy evidence and outdated thinking.  

RESEARCH

Bhui added that his own experience as a clinician working with members of London’s Somali community who have mental health issues and those who are homeless, prompted him to also raise concerns about the drug and call for more research into the plant’s possible harmful effects.


RESEARCH NEEDED: Professor Kamaldeep Bhui believes the Government’s policy on khat is based on outdated thinking

He said: “Some clinicians say that their patients’ health conditions get worse after using khat. I have seen this myself and I agree. I’ve had some patients that I’ve ended up detaining because I couldn’t tell whether it was the khat or a longstanding health condition.

They come in after using khat, they settle down very quickly, they go home, they use the khat and they come back in again. These are patients who have already been diagnosed with a mental illness so in those individuals the heavy use of khat can make their mental health worse. I was hoping that they (ACMD) would instigate a series of further investigations and also put some cautions around it and tell people what the evidence was.”

RISK

Bhui added: “If it does cause cancer, if it does cause liver cirhossis, if it does cause heart disease, even if it’s small number of people, shouldn’t we be investigating it further and giving them some warning that there are some concerns about this and telling them that if you do use this drug, you do so at your own risk?”

These views were echoed by councillors in Brent, north west London.

Despite the fact that the drug is legally available in the UK, the council introduced a voluntary agreement among the borough’s shop and café owners to restrict the sale of khat to under-18s last year. The move was one of 11 recommendations outlined in a report by a task group set up by the local authority's Health Partnerships Overview and Scrutiny Committee to study the effects of using khat.

The six councillors on the task group looked largely at the social and health consequences of khat including the anti-social behaviour problems associated with khat cafes.

The task group heard from members of the Somali community who support a total ban on the sale of khat, warning that its consumption in the UK often leads to family breakdown, ill-health, and poor employment prospects. However, others felt it was an established cultural practice and that the negative consequences were minimal.

Other recommendations in the report included calls for the government to commission further research into the pharmacological and medical effects of khat to give greater clarity to the effects of the product.

It also highlighted the need for NHS Brent and drug treatment agencies to inform khat users about the possible effects of the drug as well as awareness raising among health professionals, including GPs, so users can be offered support and advice.

COMMUNITY

Councillor Ann Hunter, who chaired the Overview and Scrutiny task group, said: “Some of the recommendations the council can implement, but many must be done by the Somali community itself.

There are some excellent organisations and individuals in the Somali community who are helping to improve lives and we should work with them to address the issues raised in the report."

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