Special report: Communities criticise 'lack of support' - one year since herbal stimulant khat was banned

Khat is a plant from the Horn of Africa, which acts as a herbal stimulant when chewed. Credit: ITV News

One year ago today, the herbal stimulant khat was banned in the UK.

Chewing the plant has been a cultural tradition for Somali and Yemeni people, more than 10,000 of whom live in Wales.

There have been just two arrests here since it was made a Class C drug - but that doesn't mean the transition has been easy.

Members of those ethnic minority communities say there has not been enough support for people who have had to give up khat.

Watch Tom Sheldrick's special report:

Khat has been chewed for centuries, and is an important social custom, in the Horn of Africa - and among many members of the large migrant communities who have made Cardiff their home for more than 100 years.

It acts as a stimulant similar to amphetamine, and was made a Class C drug in the UK due to, much-disputed, fears over its health and social impacts, and concerns the UK was becoming a hub for its supply around Europe.

Watch: March 2014 - Home Secretary re-affirms herbal stimulant ban

Figures we have obtained show there have been just two arrests in Wales since it was made illegal on 24 June 2014 - a year ago today.

Former users, and community leaders in Cardiff, have told us, though, that the ban was implemented quickly and with little consultation, and there has been a lack of support, or access to rehabilitation programmes for example - before or after, making it difficult for them to move on from a drug which has been chewed for generations, with great cultural significance.

Yassin Ahmed is from Somaliland - and has been living in Cardiff for 19 years. He told us that - although stopping chewing khat a year ago has had a positive effect on his life, it was extremely difficult - and made worse by a lack of help from the authorities.

Substance misuse charity NewLink Wales has said the level of support available to the community has been "clearly insufficient".

Chief Executive Lindsay Bruce said that posters and leaflets distributed to the community in different languages were just "tokenistic information-giving exercises", with few efforts made to actively engage with them, and encourage users into rehabilitation and other services.

"It is like banning alcohol - and not providing any support for people", she said.

The debate over whether khat should have been made illegal in the first place - and whether the ban has had a positive effect - very much continues on the streets of the capital, a year on.

Some say it was doing no harm, even keeping young men out of trouble; others say that it was making many quite useless, unable to work and be a full part of their families.

Watch: July 2013 - Calls for drug threatening future of community to be banned

Some say the ban has allowed many to turn their lives around; others that it has destroyed community links, and pushed users towards alcohol and harder drugs instead.

Watch: July 2013 - Members of Somali community welcome khat ban

Watch: July 2013 - Yemeni group opposes plan to ban stimulant khat

Some say simply that khat has not gone away - just underground, becoming more expensive and with preservatives so it will keep for longer, making it even more potent.

We can reveal that, over the last year, just two arrests relating to khat have made around Wales, since it was made a Class C drug.

Freedom of Information responses from three police forces showed no recorded incidents relating to khat - with South Wales Police, the force area where the vast majority of Somali and Yemeni migrants live, said two people have been arrested for allegedly supplying the substance.

South Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Alun Michael told us this reflects the fact issues with khat have declined, partly due to strong community engagement.

He also argued that there has been strong work by Cardiff and Vale Substance Misuse Area Planning Board, which includes the police, health board and local authority, to offer support to the community.