Opinion: Dutch khat ban smacks of racism

The Dutch government recently announced that it will ban the use of khat, a narcotic leaf widely chewed in the Horn of Africa and Yemen.

I’ve written about khat before. I’ve spent four months in Ethiopia, especially Harar, a city in the eastern part of the country where chewing khat (pronounced “chat” in the local languages) is part of many people’s daily lives. It’s a mild drug that makes most people more relaxed, mildly euphoric, and talkative. It also helps concentration and is popular among university students.

Of course there are side effects. Short-term effects include sleeplessness, constipation, and for some people a listlessness that keeps them from achieving their potential. Long-term use can lead to mental instability and heart trouble. I met one western researcher in Harar who had been there two years. He’d stopped using khat after the first few months because he was afraid of the long-term effects. If I lived in Harar that long I’d stop chewing khat for that very reason.

So the Dutch government seems to have a good reason to ban khat. Or does it? This is a country where marijuana, hash, herbal ecstasy, and psychedelic truffles are all legal. And if we’re talking about long-term health effects, we need to throw in alcohol and tobacco too.

So what’s different about khat? It’s almost exclusively used by the Dutch Somali community, numbering about 25,000 people. According to the BBC, “a Dutch government report cited noise, litter and the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat as some of the reasons for outlawing the drug.”

Drunks aren’t noisy? Cigarette smokers never litter? The last reason is the most telling: “the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat.” In other words, black men. In Europe, khat is a black drug, little understood and rarely used by the white population. This ignorance and the fear it generates are the real reasons khat is being banned.

While there are some valid health and social reasons for banning this narcotic plant, they also apply to the narcotic plants white people like to use. But we can’t expect white people in The Netherlands to give up those, can we?


Visting the US? Remember to register with ESTA before you leave!

If you live in one of the countries participating in the US Visa Waiver program, pay attention, as things just got a little more complicated for you.

As of January 12th 2009, all visitors to the US who are eligible for the visa waiver program will have to apply for travel authorization at least 72 hours prior to their trip.

There are 35 countries that participate in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), and if you have ever come to the US on the VWP, you’ll have probably filled in one of those annoying green forms on your flight here.

Those days are now officially over, and the US Government wants to know who is coming here, before they get on the plane.

Statistics from the Department of Homeland Security claim that 99.6% of all people who apply for travel permission get it granted within seconds, which still leaves a fairly decent amount of people who do not get it, for any number of reasons.

The new authorization system is called ESTA – Electronic System for Travel Authorization. The site is available in 16 different languages. To apply for permission to fly to the US, you enter all your personal information, passport data, and flight numbers. You then get to answer the same questions you probably remember from the VWP form, which are there to determine whether you are a Nazi, drug dealer or other nasty kind of person.
If all works out, and you are not on a terrorist watch list, you’ll receive an authorization number. If the system declines your request, you’ll be required to apply for a regular visa through your local US Consulate or Embassy, which will most certainly take some time, so be sure you don’t wait too long!

Of course, as with all new systems like this, there are going to be some glitches, but the most worrying statistic is that far too many people had not heard of the new rules, and arrive at the airport unprepared. Thankfully, the US government has allowed for a short grace period.

The hardest hit are going to be people without Internet access as there is no offline application process. There will be no terminals at the airport, and people in a VWP country who arrive at the airport without an ESTA authorization number may be denied boarding.

Once you register for ESTA, the authorization is valid for 2 years, or the life of your passport (whichever is shorter). As with all international travel, you will need at least 6 months duration left on your passport if you want authorization.

The official ESTA site can be found here, just make sure you don’t fall for the tricks of paid services like Esta.us, who’ll do “all the hard work” for you, for a mere $249!

Mexico and borders: No longer a speedy crossing

When I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, heading to Juarez, Mexico for the day was a fun day outing. I didn’t do it often, but at least twice a year we’d walk across the border at El Paso, Texas, have lunch, shop for presents at the market, buy a bottle of Kahlúa and Jose Cuervo and head home. Going across the border was a snap–quick. There was nothing to it. I found the same thing when I went to Tijuana for the day from Los Angeles.

According to this New York Times article, those days are over. It’s taking up to three hours to get back into the United States, even for American citizens. The borders are stopping people more to ask for identification papers in an aim to be ready for January when traveling by car across the borders requires a passport.

As you can imagine this is causing a tourist dollar damper. If you can’t hop over the border and back in an easy trip, there’s no such thing as an easy day outing. Eventually, the system should smooth out, but it’s going to take awhileas in a couple years. The people who are probably going to come out ahead with the slow down are the vendors who sell items from car to car. Thanks to All the Colors who took this picture at the Juarez border crossing and posted it on Flickr.