Dutch bid to put qat back in the bag

The Dutch government is set to outlaw qat leaves, mildly narcotic, and mostly chewed by Somali immigrants. The ban, which only has to be discussed in parliament, and expected soon, does not require a vote.

Qat leaves are mildly addictive, but the Netherlands' move to ban the drug has been questioned by many as having political undertones.
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AMSTERDAM // Dutch politicians unhappy with perceptions of their country as the Sodom and Gomorrah of Europe - lax on prostitution and drug abuse - are cracking down.

First a majority in parliament said it wanted to end the internationally-known, semi-legal availability of hashish. Now the government is set to outlaw qat leaves, mildly narcotic, and mostly chewed by Somali immigrants.

The ban, which only has to be discussed in parliament, and expected soon, does not require a vote.

The government has said qat prevents the Somali immigrant community from integrating into society - bringing together two sensitive social issues that the centre-right majority in the Netherlands seeks to address: migrant workers and drug abuse.

Qat is mildly addictive - more mentally than physically. Users get a slight "buzz" chewing the leaves, and it's generally used in social situations when friends gather to talk, rather than in hard-core drug sessions.

Critics have accused the government of posturing at the expense of a vulnerable minority.

Drug policy is usually handled by the justice and health ministries but in the case of qat, Gerd Leers, the minister of migration and asylum affairs, took the initiative.

He said last month the ban could be in place by the summer.

"I'm involved in the ban because it appears to cause serious problems, particularly in the Somali community," he told Dutch radio in January. "They are lethargic and refuse to cooperate with the government or take responsibility for themselves or their families."

But many scientists dispute the minister's reasoning. And representatives of Somali social, cultural and civil society organisations, who are against the use of qat, said a ban would go too far and may have ulterior motives.

"There is a sense that it may be more symbolic for political reasons rather than aimed at improving our situation," said Mohamed Elmi of FSAN, the umbrella organisation of Somali associations.

He disputed the government's assertions that 10 per cent of the 25,000 Somalis in the Netherlands have a serious qat problem. He put the total number of users at about five per cent, of which "only a handful" are badly affected. That is in line with what researchers at the Netherlands Institute for Mental Health and Addiction said, who have stimated the number of problematic cases at several hundred. And in many of those a combination of qat use and alcohol or hard drugs was to blame.

A spokesman for Mr Leers reiterated the 10 per cent figure and said that even if this did not represent many people, "it is 10 per cent too many".

Mr Elmi said what the Somali community needed was not a ban on qat, although measures to inhibit its use would be welcome.

"You can regulate or register or you can handle the problems with distribution in another way," he said. "The Somali community has many problems that need to be tackled and I don't see them doing anything about those."

The Netherlands has a large Somali minority that has been granted asylum. The group has high rates of unemployment and school dropouts and is generally regarded as having more trouble integrating than other communities of migrants and refugees.

The government's claim that its aim is to help the Somali community is undercut by the researchers who looked into the issue. Clary van der Veen is co-author of a government-commissioned study on qat use by the Netherlands Institute for Mental Health and Addiction and she is sceptical about the government move.

"We made very different recommendations based on our study. The large group of social users is not a problem. You may need to inform them better and point out the long-term effect, just like with smoking and drinking," she said. She also questioned whether a ban on qat would truly help the integration of Somali immigrants. "In countries where qat has been banned, the integration of Somalis is not faring better," she said.

The focus on both migrants and drugs follows a "lurch to the right" in the Netherlands, said Hans van Duijn, a prominent critic of the country's new, more hard-line policies. A retired high-ranking police officer who chaired the Dutch police trade union, Mr Van Duijn nowadays is a campaigner against drug prohibition.

He said claims that a ban is aimed at helping the integration of Somalis were "nonsense" and used the same word for another government assertion: that surrounding countries were complaining about the Netherlands being used as a conduit for qat, which is illegal in every other country in Europe except the UK.

"They are using a lot of misleading arguments, such as recently when the centre-right argued for a ban on the sale of hashish because it was said to benefit North-African criminal gangs and the Taliban. As if by banning the sale of hashish in Dutch coffee shops this would end," he said.

Despite the Netherlands being used as a conduit for qat, especially to the large Somali community in Scandinavia, there had been very few complaints, said Mr Van Duijn.

Britain's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs concluded in 2005 that, "the evidence of harm resulting from qat use is not sufficient to recommend its control".

After the planned Dutch ban, the British government is re-examining the issue, mostly because of concerns that the UK will become the centre for qat smuggling.

But, said Mr Van Duijn, measures to ban the leaves are unlikely to be completely successful. "The dealers will try hard to find a solution because they now stand to make more money, which will not benefit the user. It is a mystery to me what the benefits are."