On the 3rd of July this year, the UK Home Secretary announced her intention to introduce a ban on the psychoactive stimulant khat. Interestingly, this story comes scarcely 5 months after a report from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) issued a report on khat, which stated khat should remain legal, due to insufficient evidence on its health effects and no direct link to serious or organised crime at present. In fact, the report suggests making khat illegal would funnel funds into criminal organisations, which would manage the plant’s trade in the absence of a legal route.

Why is this story relevant? First of all, it really gets to the heart of relationships between science and policy. The ACMD provided a report on the latest scientific evidence for and against the criminalisation of a drug. As such, the government is expected to take the advice on board, along with all other considerations and make an informed decision. The great surprise here is of a government that claims to follow evidence-based policy, and yet seems to have taken little heed of this report. It is clear the other considerations, such as policing and the role of Britain in the international trade of khat, have weighted against the scientific evidence.

Which brings us to the second point; accountability. While it is perfectly acceptable that a government to make policy opposed to its advisors opinions, the public has a right to know why the evidence was ignored. Science cannot dictate policy, but it can learn from past experience, particularly if we know the reasons why a particular course of policy was followed and what the consequences were. This aspect was conspicuously missing from the recent debate, where the reciprocal relationship between science and policy is crucial to understand the impact of such rulings.

So, what should be the role of science in government policy? To advice, first and foremost, but also to make clear what the implications of taking any decision are, and their associated risk. This was perhaps the weakest point of the ACMD report on khat, where the long-term consequences of criminalisation or continued legality were described, but little discussion was had on the risk and uncertainty surrounding these predictions. While it may seems as a side point, a frank discussion of risk should be a key point driving the issue for both policy makers and the public at large.

Finally, science needs to play a role in public consultation. When large-scale policy decisions are made, scientists need to be at the forefront of informing the public on the evidence and likely effects of future policies. Not to push an agenda, but to put all the cards on the table and allow people to decide. This is how science and policy can truly coexist, forming a democratic framework for informed decisions at the time of casting the ballot.

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Khat ban as reported in BBC News and The Huffington Post. The ACMD report on khat is publicly available here.

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