Saturday, January 3, 2009

The economics of khat prohibition in the West

Khat is a plant that is widely used in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen, where it is chewed for its mild stimulant qualities, and recently it's been confounding anti-drug warriors in the West. The East African and Yemeni diaspora has brought the drug to immigrant communities through the US, the UK, and Northern Europe. While technically illegal in most of these places (the UK being the notable exception), its use is limited to immigrant communities and hasn't appeared on the streets alongside heroin and cocaine, and so it's been a relatively low law enforcement priority. As always, though, the US is the most eager to stamp out the drug, with DEA agents arresting Somali immigrants in places like Seattle and San Diego for conspiracy to import the drug from East Africa.

Diaspora communities in the US themselves are apparently divided on the issue, with many supporting the use of the drug as an integral part of their culture, and others (often women, who are by custom less likely to chew khat) wishing their adopted homelands would crack down on the use of khat. Many of the criticisms coming from within and outside of the community are the standard anti-drug arguments – it destroys your mind, turns you into an idle drug user, etc. But one bizarrely paradoxical argument is that it costs too much:

In fact, within the East African community in the U.S., there are many who welcome the khat restrictions.

"I have seen what it does," Mohamud said. "Families who are trying to make ends meet on a daily basis cannot afford it. It just creates so many problems between a husband and wife to the point where a broken family is going to be the result."

But why does it cost so much? In East Africa, the plant is cheap – only $1 per kilogram according to the Seattle PI. But across the Atlantic, in the United States where the plant is illegal, the price shoots up to as much as $700 per kilo. Some of this difference can be attributed to the cost of shipping the plant from East Africa to the United States, as it needs to be consumed soon after harvest or it will lose its potency (in contrast to most illegal drugs, which can be stored for long periods of time). But that's only part of the story – the lion's share of the price differential is eaten up by the black market, as shippers and sellers take larger profits to compensate for the risk of trafficking in this illegal substance.

Compare this to the UK, where the plant is legal, and prices are low in comparison – less than £20 per kilo retail (pdf). And it's not just the law that makes the price shoot up, but rather the degree of enforcement. For example, in Sweden, where the plant is technically illegal but enforcement is minimal, retail prices range from about $100 to $250 per kilo – high, but not as high as in the US. (Some other reasons for Sweden's high khat prices could be its relatively small East African/Yemeni population as compared to that of the UK, as well as its lack of direct air connections to the regions where khat is produced.)

Those who don't like the drug because of its cost to poor immigrant families would be smarter to simply legalize the drug and watch prices plummet, rather than adding another substance to the quixotic and dangerous war on drugs.

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