Policing the ban on the mild herbal stimulant, used by Somali, Yemeni and Ethiopian people in the UK, poses challenges
Police have been officially advised to use their discretion in deciding how to enforce the ban that comes into force on Tuesday on qat, a mild herbal stimulant, that has been widely used in Britain's Somali, Yemeni and Ethiopian communities.
It will be illegal to possess qat (also known as khut, khat, kat, qut or xat) in the UK from Tuesday, but it will be difficult for police officers to enforce the rule. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Alan Travis, home affairs editor
Official guidelines from the Association of Chief Police Officers tells constables that in applying a "three strikes" enforcement policy they should take into account that qat has "historically not been a controlled drug and was part of the culture of certain communities linked to the Horn of Africa."
The ban was introduced by the home secretary, Theresa May, in the face of opposition from the Liberal Democrats and against the advice of her official advisory committee on the misuse of drugs. The home secretary said there was a serious danger that Britain would become an international trading hub for a substance that has now been widely banned in the rest of Europe.
The "three strikes" escalation policy will see a qat warning issued to adults for a first offence, a £60 on the spot fine for a second offence, and the possibility of arrest and prosecution for third-time offenders.
But the Acpo guidelines on the qat possession for personal use show that enforcing the ban will throw up some unique challenges for officers on patrol. They make clear that while any police officer can issue a qat warning or a fixed penalty notice they need to be or find an officer who is an expert in identifying the herb and who can do so without any doubt before a warning or a fine can be issued.
The Acpo guidelines also make clear that there is little the officer can do if somebody caught in possession of qat simply decides to start chewing the evidence: "If the individual merely has a mouthful of what is suspected to be qat, it will not be permissible to issue a sanction, even with an admission without additional evidence, because the chewed pulp will not be readily identifiable."
The official guidance says that given the hygiene and forensic issues officers should exercise their discretion and "provide suitable words of advice to the subject, warning them that possession of qat is illegal."
The guidelines acknowledge that the practice of chewing qat is an ancient tradition: "The leaves and young shoots, at their most potent within 48 hours of harvesting, are chewed and the juice swallowed with the residue stored in the mouth until the cheek bulges," they advise.