By Jack Stubbs
LONDON, May 20 (Reuters) - Hundreds of tonnes of khat, a leafy plant chewed as a stimulant in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, are being smuggled through Britain into Europe and North America, a UN report said on Tuesday.
Up to 300 tonnes of the plant, which will be an illegal class-C drug in Britain after a ban is introduced in July this year, are transported to Britain each year before being trafficked to countries where it is a controlled substance, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in its Global Synthetic Drugs Assessment report.
The planned government ban on khat aims to prevent Britain from becoming a hub for its illegal trade. But Mohammed Ismail, 66, a retired khat dealer previously known as the "King of Khat", said the ban would have little effect.
"Khat is everywhere in this country," said Isamail, who came to London in the 1980s from Yemen.
"Go to east London and ask where to buy some. Everyone will point in every direction," he told Reuters.
Khat shipments trafficked through Britain have been seized as far afield as the United States and Canada, as well as numerous countries in Europe, according to Angela Me, chief of research and trend analysis at the UNODC.
"What is clearly emerging in the last few years is that the UK and the Netherlands have become market hubs ... for trade on to regions including North America and Europe," she said.
Khat, or qat, is grown and sold legally in much of eastern Africa where chewing the plant is a social custom dating back thousands of years. It is widely consumed by Britain's Yemeni, Somali and Ethiopian communities, who critics say risk being alienated by the plans to outlaw it.
The ban also goes against the recommendation of the government's official drug advisory body, which said it was not based on any evidence of medical or social harm.
Me said khat was one of a number of widely-trafficked drugs not covered by international drug laws and that a ban in Britain would help reduce its circulation.
"It would definitely make it more difficult for people to traffic through the UK," she said. "Traffickers use countries where substances are still legal."
But Ismail believes that outlawing the drug would create a lucrative black market, similar to that in the United States where a bundle of khat sells for $50 compared to the six pounds ($10) it would cost in Britain.
"When it is illegal, the money goes up and the criminals come in," he said. "You can never get rid of khat. When they try they just make it worse." (Reporting by Jack Stubbs; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)