Last month saw the peaceful passing at age 85 of Muhammad Amir Kazim Khan, or ‘Kaz’ as he was affectionately known, a gentle giant of aristocratic Indian Raj origins.
Kazim was not just active in the race and drugs sector in Britain, but largely created it during his work at the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse in the 1980s and ’90s and then in the EU-funded and UK versions of T3E (‘Toxicomanie Europe Échanges Études’) and the Race and Drugs Project.
His scholarly but also activist and very practical brand of anti-racism realised that accusations of overt racism were rarely justified or the way forward in the substance misuse treatment sector, where people often chose to sacrifice what could have been more lucrative or status-enhancing careers to work with and champion the most stigmatised, unconventional and despised in our society.
Instead, not-so-benign neglect leading to effectively discriminatory practices characterised a sector which saw itself as already facing up to the stigma and discrimination inherent in the position of illegal drugs and their users in society – at an organisational level, racism is not a unitary thing or an intention, but an outcome of practices such as an agency’s human resources policy, its service development programme, or its communications strategy, which combine to adversely ‘impact on a category of the population that has already been classified in a racialist manner’ (Drugs : Policy and Politics). The way forward was to bring these practices to light through a guided and forensic examination of the organisation’s procedures and priorities (operationalised in Action Points for Change) underpinned by an awareness of how systemic racism arises, and then to challenge and change them.
Driven by personal experience, compassion and a sense of justice, it is hard to believe that those who worked in the sector during Kazim’s time (and in some cases still do) will ever be matched, but that may be to misread the genesis of this remarkable generation.
No matter how conventional the entry route, open minds will be affected by encounters with the built-in unconventionality and survivor capabilities of committed users of stigmatised and banned drugs. Like them, they will find that really doing the job properly involves a preparedness to bend some rules and extend beyond comfort zones in favour of an overarching rule – to do the best you can for your patient, client and community.
Kazim did not just exemplify that generation of giants, but challenged it and took it by the hand to make it aware of the race-related dimensions of its work, leaving a legacy in the form of many who would otherwise never have considered race and racism were issues for them or their services.
He taught them that if they are truly to do the best for all their actual and potential service users, these issues can no longer be sidelined – and that the examination of systemic racism will improve a service not just for visible minority populations, but also for the ‘white’ majority.
As well as his vocational legacy, Kazim leaves behind someone for whom he always expressed a tender love – his wife Anita, a pocket dynamo with a monumental personality, and also a much-loved figure in the substance use sector, and his daughter Yumna and grandson Jamie.
Born in a leap year on 29 February, Kaz would joke that he was really only 21. He will be remembered as forever youthful in his charm and openness to new experiences and learning, even though he had so much to teach the rest of us.
Obituary by Mike Ashton, Editor of Drug and Alcohol Findings.