Somali-Canadian Community Under Attack by Khat Enforcers 5/21/99

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Members of Toronto, Canada's Somali community are in shock over a sudden police crackdown against the substance khat, with attendant civil liberties abuses, and are seeking to have police searches of homes reined in and the legislation that banned the substance last year repealed. And article in the May 3rd issue of the Toronto Star reported that 50 Somalis had met the previous day and were planning to meet with police to discuss the problem.

The Week Online spoke with Farah Khayre, executive director of Midaynta, Association of Somali Service Agencies. Khayre explained, "Khat in the Somali culture has traditionally been used socially, much like coffee in the western culture. It has no criminality associated with it, and on the contrary helps to create a friendly environment, even to help resolve disputes." Used primarily by adult males, Khayre continued, "It's like getting together over coffee or beer to share ideas." Khat is frequently used while meeting to plan weddings or engagements.

Khayre believes that the trouble over khat started in 1992, when US Marines were stationed in Somalia as the principal agents of a U.N. peacekeeping force. According to Khayre, US soldiers experimented with khat, and US military officials put forward khat use as an explanation for deficiencies in performance. Thus having been brought to the attention of the DEA and other US drug warriors, the US government proceeded to place khat in its list of controlled substances and to pressure foreign governments, including that of Canada, to crack down on khat.

According to Khayre, "[The law] was passed quietly, not even fully debated in Parliament, no community information was sought, and no outreach to the community to information about this law was made. We just started getting these calls from people whose had been arrested or their homes broken into. The wake up call was these calls from our clients."

Ali Mohamud, of Dejint Beesha Somali Multi-Service Center Agency, told the Week Online that "police from Toronto have been raiding apartments and taking gold and money." In Somali culture, gold is often crafted into ornaments, which will often take on the same kind of sentimental value as jewelry and other gifts and heirlooms can have in other cultures. Mohamud shares the shock and surprise of his fellow Canadian Somalis. "I did not even think such things could happen in Canada."

Midaynta's clients have also reported abusive police tactics. Khayre stated, "What I can say is that in many cases, according to the reports that we have been receiving from clients, the professional standards of the police have not been followed -- break-ins without warrants, no receipts for confiscated items, not a professional way of conducting police raids." When asked if he believed Somalis are being treated differently from other Canadians, Khayre answered, "If these reports turn out to be on firm ground, then yes, we can say we have been treated differently."

Somali organizations are seeking repeal of the law criminalizing khat, and are preparing to challenge the law in the courts. In the meantime, they acknowledge the right of law enforcement agencies to enforce the law, but call on them to halt the abusive tactics and invasions of privacy that the sudden enforcement effort has entailed. "If they find [khat] at the airport, they have the right to arrest people who are found with it in their possession," said Khayre; but while the court challenge is pursued, "police should stop invading Somali homes."

Khayre said that "Khat, like any other social thing, every one has problems, health, economic or otherwise. What's surprising is that there is absolutely no record of crime as a result of khat use, while alcohol is the number one such problem. Is it simply a cultural bias?" Khayre continued, "Khat helps a lot of Somalis to relieve stress, which is a major issue in a community that's come to a new culture or environment. So for them, it's more of a therapy."

Khayre is also surprised at the recent police behavior. "We work with police, they are decent people, an example of good behavior. I don't understand how something like this could happen."

(Read about drug policy and reform efforts in Canada at the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy web site, recently relocated to its own domain at http://www.cfdp.ca/.)

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Issue #91, 5/21/99 Two-Year Anniversary of Hernandez Shooting | Legislation in Alaska Will Restrict State's Medical Marijuana Law | Australia: Police Force Closure of Safe Injection Room | Somali-Canadian Community Under Attack by Khat Enforcers | Canadian Medical Group Wants Doctors to Prescribe More Pain Meds | Higher Education Act Reform Campaign Update
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