Khat: The final days in Bristol for the drug they chew all night

Read Time:6 Minute, 1 Second’s currently a ‘legal high’ yet some claim it is responsible for mental health problems and even domestic violence. Louis Emanuel chews some khat with the regulars in Bristol.

AT the bottom of a shabby flight of stairs, around the back of a takeaway off Stapleton Road in Easton, I am greeted by a man with gums lined green with khat.

Like his three or four friends hovering around the doorway with him, he is keen to stress how important it is for him to remain anonymous before he leads me up into the mafrish – a type of café where the soon-to-be banned stimulant is sold and chewed.

In the main room, past the shoes on the floor and the cloud of users in the hallway, padded, bench-like seating clings to the walls.

Each seat is taken by Somali men ranging from their early 20s to their late 40s, and each man has a single, fold-away table in front of him with his bunch of the reddish-green stalky shrub.

The light is bright and the furnishings drab and worn. The setting falls somewhere between an old people’s home and how you would imagine a drug den.

The mood is chatty and voices talk over each other. “We don’t drink alcohol, so this is just like coming down the pub for us,” a user in his 20s says to me as he picks his stalks and adds them to the growing mass of green tucked away in his cheek.

The stalks keep coming and he raises them to his mouth with the regularity you would expect from a teenager sipping his pint of beer.

Earlier on, as entry was being carefully negotiated downstairs, I was surprised to hear that a ban on khat was widely supported – even here.

Amid a chorus of agitated voices, a 46-year-old unemployed man gestured up the stairways towards the mafrish and said to me: “This is no good for the community.

“People in here, we chew from the evening and all through the night. We come home and fall asleep. We miss our families, we don’t work and we spend all the money on khat.”

A man claiming to be a khat dealer barged in. “We will all sleep in the morning so tomorrow we can’t go to help our kids,” he agrees.

He has four children and says he chews four bundles of khat every night. Each bundle costs £3.

Research has linked khat addiction with mental health issues, financial problems, unemployment and even domestic violence.

The plant, grown predominantly in Kenya and consumed in the Horn of Africa, is clearly a source of woe for the 10,000-strong Somali community in Bristol.

Back upstairs, questions come hard and fast from more agitated voices as the mafrish’s owner/manager guides me through taking my own bundle of khat.

As I peel off the young leaves and chew the sour plant, one young man is keen to get his point across. Like many in the room, he is feeling the effects of the drug, which produces a mild amphetamine high which makes users feel energetic, chatty and confident.

He too readily accepts that the drug – estimated to be used by about 50 per cent of Bristol’s 5,000 Somali male population – is a problem.

“I wouldn’t say we need an all out ban. What we need is regulation,” he says. “At the moment anyone can buy, sell and take it and it is very addictive.”

Under Home Office plans, khat will become a Class C drug sometime over the next few months.

But since Theresa May announced a ban – in line with many other northern European countries – she has faced criticism from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

Following research, the council rejected calls for a ban, citing “insufficient evidence” that it caused health problems. Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee said the ban was not based on any evidence of medical or social harm.

But some experts say Britain is at risk of becoming a transport hub for illegal khat trade in Europe unless it bans it here too. Some experts have also linked the use and cultivation of khat to terror group Al-Shabaab.

Before visiting the mafrish, I spent time in quieter cafés and shops on Stapleton Road speaking with users, non-users and former users.

Liban Obsiye, 27, an outspoken critic of the Government’s plans, told me the complex problems associated with khat in the Somali communities in Bristol, Birmingham and London are not as “black and white” as a simple ban.

He insisted that the Government’s eagerness to press ahead with the new laws were over-simplified and will criminalise users instead of addressing the heart of the matter: why people abuse the drug.

He said: “People turn to khat, like any drug, because of their situation.

“In the Somali community, for example, unemployment and lack of integration are some of the real problems fuelling khat abuse.

“We should also consider that khat is something to turn to to get rid of extremely traumatic experiences as a refugee.”

He says a ban is too soon for a city which does not even have a drug clinic which deals with the fallout from khat. He adds simply: “We need to look at this holistically.”

Mahmoud Matan, 42, told me he regularly sees the impact of khat on tenants he meets at the housing association where he works.

But, he said: “The way the Government want to deal with it will demonise people who use it and demonise Somali culture too.

“For some people who use the drug but are not addicts, chewing is a cultural thing.”

Before sitting down to meet Mahmoud and Liban, I had visited a butchers on the same street where a box of khat bundles could be seen by the till.

Leaning over his counter, 39-year-old Abdi Abdul told me candidly that he chews khat at work to help him focus and keep his energy levels high.

But he too agrees that the drug is a blight on the community.

He stops short of backing an all-out ban, but raises concerns that young unemployed and unintegrated Somalis are “wasting their time and money” on the shrub.

Mr Abdul, who has five children of his own, the oldest of who is 13, said: “Compared to in Somalia, khat is used differently here. It is treated with respect back home but here it is destroying communities.”

Back at the mafrish, as I leave, the effects of the khat still lodged in my cheek becomes more apparent.

Any tiredness from waking up at 5.45am is replaced by a heightened sense of awareness and an unusually focussed mind.

It is a sensation I imagine could be replicated with five double espressos or 10 cans of Red Bull maybe.

It is also an experience I regret signing up for as I climb into bed a couple of hours later only to find sleep a long way off and another 5.45am start just around the corner. source

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