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Khat: Sweden's forgotten immigrant drug

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Khat: Sweden's forgotten immigrant drug
16:43 CEST+02:00
Use of the illegal drug khat is widespread in Sweden's immigrant suburbs but the police have chosen to turn a blind eye, Faisal Enayat Khan reports.

In the early hours of Monday morning May 19th, three men are pulled over by the police on a motorway outside the university town of Uppsala. Police find seven kilos of the drug khat on the back seat of their car.

The men are taken in for questioning. But even though the quantity of drugs seized is equivalent to 280 so-called “abuse doses”, the men are released without charge after just a few hours.

The situation outlined above is in no way unusual. Although the amphetamine-like stimulant was classified as a narcotic by the Swedish parliament in 1989, the prohibition is not strictly enforced.

Swedish courts have ruled that narcotics crimes involving khat will only be categorized as serious if at least 400 kilos of the drug is involved. Anyone caught smuggling less than this amount will at most be fined and ordered to perform community service.

A critical report issued by the National Police Board's intelligence division has calculated that 400 kilos is equivalent to 16,000 “abuse doses”, a measure often used by the justice system to calculate the seriousness of a narcotics offence.

The report then highlights two Supreme Court cases involving GHB and Rohypnol, where 150 and 200 “abuse doses” are sufficient to render as serious drug offences involving these substances.

In Somalia almost everybody chews khat. Many soldiers participating in the country's civil war chew it to fight, while others chew it to escape the effects of war. The rest chew it because everybody else does.

The effects of the stimulant are well-documented. Users can become talkative, euphoric and emotionally unbalanced. The effects of long-term use can be devastating, often leading to personality disorders and other serious mental health problems.

But khat use is not restricted to Africa. A world away from the chaos of the Somali civil war, every third Somali man in the welfare state of Sweden chews khat.

Some experts think that Swedish Somalis chew khat partly to escape the effects of the social segregation they are experiencing in Sweden. Somali community leaders in Sweden are enraged that the police are not prioritizing the khat ban.

Hadji Farah, a community worker in Rinkeby, a suburb in the northwest of Stockholm and the heartland of the country's Somali community, is fiercely critical of the police's treatment of the khat problem as just a Somali issue:

“We are also Swedish,” he says. “No matter where we come from originally, we contribute to the society as much as anybody else does and we want to be treated alike,” he tells The Local.

In a report from 2007 on illegal drugs in Sweden, the National Police Board accepts that khat has not been a priority for the Swedish police force. As it is only abused by certain migrant groups, the risk of the drug spreading to other groups in society is considered minimal.

The report also points out that khat smuggling and abuse are not considered serious offences under the Swedish justice system. As such, the smuggling of khat is no longer treated as organized crime.

The report also says there is no structured plan to tackle the khat problem at the national level. The board has however hired an officer with extensive knowledge of the matter to examine new ways of combating the illicit crop.

“If caught by the police, a person smuggling 50 kilos of khat, which is the average amount smuggled, will probably only receive fines or community service. It gives the police less grounds on which to conduct surveillance around the smuggling network,” a police investigator in Rinkeby tells The Local.

Stefan Kalman from the police board's intelligence division points out that Swedish police also have to grapple with different international approaches to the khat problem.

“It is imported legally to the doorsteps of Europe from Kenya, and from there it is transported by car to Sweden,” he said, making reference to the Netherlands and the UK where khat is both sold and used legally.

Kalman does not share the attitude of the police that khat smuggling should not be classed as organized crime:

“We are talking one of the most organized forms of criminality in Europe,” he says.

Björn Fries, the former head of the government's drug coordination unit, is in no doubt that khat abuse is tolerated only because of who the users are:

“If it had been one third of Östermalm residents abusing khat, we wouldn't be having this discussion today,” he tells The Local, referring to the well-heeled neighbourhood that houses much of Stockholm's elite.

According to Fries, everybody in the government publicly hails any steps taken to combat the drug but in reality no one cares.

“I called the justice department and the social welfare department before attending the Ban Khat conference in 2007 to see if they had anything I could tell the participants of the conference. No one seemed interested,” he tells The Local.

“I bet a large number of people working for the Swedish state do not even know what khat is,” he adds.

While Sweden lacks exact data on how much khat is being smuggled into Sweden, the Swedish Customs Authority (Tullverket) puts it at between 150 to 300 tons annually.

There is also uncertainty regarding the street price of the drug. Police estimate the cost of 200 grams – the equivalent of a day's khat use for one person -- at 150 to 200 kronor ($25-33). But The Local's research has shown that the price for 200 grams can rise to as much as 400 kronor depending on the season.

Khat -- also known by a range of other names, including as miraa, Catha edulis, African salad and Bushman's tea -- is grown in Kenya all year round and is considered a cash crop. It has rapidly replaced coffee and other traditional crop cultivation, largely due to a drop in global coffee prices.

The socio-economic effects of the drug are tangible in Sweden. According to some experts, the high level of joblessness amongst Somali men can be explained by abuse of Khat.

Stefan Kalman, Björn Fries, Emma De Cal and many Somali activists are doing all they can to convince the Swedish justice system that khat poses a very real danger to society. Prolonged consumption of the drug leaves people with no will to work or participate in social life, they say.

A world away from suburban Sweden, Kimathi Munjuri from the Nyambene Miraa Trade Association accentuates the positives of khat-induced apathy. Munjuri's organization strives to convince countries around the world to lift the khat ban.

“Khat chewers are so preoccupied with chewing khat that they don't have time to join terrorist groups,” he explains, speaking to The Local on his Blackberry from the jungles of Kenya's Meru district.

The application of modern communication has considerably shortened the delivery time from Kenya's main Khat-growing district. Emma De Cal, a public health expert who has carried out extensive studies on the drug and its effects on the Somali community in Sweden, says khat smuggling is characterized by efficiency and good organization.

“Khat completes its journey from the mountains of Kenya to the suburbs of Sweden in less than two days,” she tells The Local. “I would say they are better than DHL.”

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