Khat Chewing – Benign Practice or Social Peril?

Image by Rod Waddington

Image by Rod Waddington

A stimulant native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, Khat is a narcotic leaf that induces mild euphoria upon chewing – an extremely popular custom in Somalia, Yemen, Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia.

Lucrative business

More than 25,000kg of khat is sold each day in Ethiopia’s Adaway Market and is a vital source of revenue for the nation. It was Ethiopia’s fourth largest export in 2013, bringing in over £160m that year alone. In Somalia, the 571 franchise based in Hergeisa is the region’s largest supplier, selling roughly 80 tonnes of khat every single day. The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that Djibouti spends $170 million on khat annually, or approximately 30 percent of household income. An export worth well over $100m a year, Kenya also relies heavily on khat. Here, thousands of farmers depend on the trade of this leaf and is usually referred to as “miraa”, originating from the Meru region of Kenya. This profitable business shows no signs of slowing down: with an estimated 500,000 farmers across the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula, this number continues to grow each year. Since World War II, and especially over the past 20 years, the prevalence of this practice has skyrocketed, with no social group excluded.

Dangerous Side Effects

The World Health Organization (WHO) lists khat as a drug that creates “dependence” in people, meaning it produces a continuing desire to keep using it. While chewing this leaf causes users to feel more alert and chatty, substantial use often leads to insomnia, high blood pressure, heart problems, chronic constipations and impotence. And that’s best case scenario. Long-term risks include the development of mouth cancer, stomach ulcers and paranoia. It can create feelings of anxiety and aggression and aggravate pre-existing mental health problems. Many believe that this leaf has similar, but less intense effects, to those of cocaine. Upon chewing, users experience an unusual feeling of excitement and awareness, often causing them to lose concentration when carrying out the simplest of tasks. Because khat chewing successfully suppresses appetite, chronic users often suffer from severe malnutrition.

UK Ban

As immigrants from East Africa and the Middle East have settled in communities throughout Europe and North America, they have brought their khat chewing tradition with them, triggering some friction between khat users and law enforcement officials.

In 2013, the UK government classified khat as a class C drug, in part to prevent the country from becoming a center for smuggling khat to other countries within Europe and America, where the drug has long been illegal. The United Kingdom’s ban on possession, sale and importing of khat took effect at the end of June 2013. Prior to the ban, over a thousand tons were flown in annually from East Africa and distributed from warehouses near Heathrow airport. In 2013, close to £15 million worth of khat was imported from Kenya. It is believed that an estimated 90,000 people in the UK, mainly Somalis, chew khat on a regular basis. Detractors argue the ban will further criminalize African and Arab immigrant communities in Britain, who habitually chew the leaf.

Practice or Peril?

Khat chewing is a practice that dates back thousands of years. For its many aficionados, this ritual is analogous to the drinking of coffee or alcohol in the West. Contrary to alcohol, chewing khat is not forbidden in Islam and serves as an excuse to get together and socialize.  In Yemen, for example, it is estimated that roughly 90% of adult males chew khat three to four hours a day. However, critics insist the leaf is destroying Yemen. Proving a more fruitful source of income than growing vegetables, many are eagerly joining the khat frenzy, leading to a huge increase in the proportion of Yemen’s arable land devoted to khat farming. Khat requires a lot of water, a scarce and precious resource in Yemen. While khat fields are usually flooded only twice a month, they deplete a whopping 30% of the country’s water — most of which is pumped from underground aquifers filled thousands of years ago and refilled very slowly by rainfall’s rare appearances. Yemen is in serious danger of becoming the world’s first country to run out of water in less than five years and this practice is only exacerbating that risk.

With a regular user consuming about a bag a day, this is an expensive habit in Yemen, where about 45% of the population lives below the poverty line. Government figures indicate that the majority of Yemenite families spend more money on khat than on food.  In a country where 43% of the population lives below the poverty line, it is a similar story in Somalia, where approximately 75% of males are avid chewers.

Furthermore, the consumption of khat seems to encourage corruption and other criminal activities due to the costly nature of the habit (when considering the per capita income), often compelling the consumer to earn more money so as to placate his vice. Moreover, there is growing consensus that khat is linked to violence in Somalia. A 2007 study from PLOS Medicine found that close to 40 percent of Somali combatants had used khat during the prior week.

Advocates of khat production insist it brings precious revenue to the countries that export it, but in nations plagued with rampant unemployment and economic grievances, it is incongruous to argue that khat production generates meaningful income.

While the effects of this leaf are by no means trivial, in countries where unemployment and hunger prevail, it is no surprise that khat’s energy-boosting and hunger-numbing properties make it so appealing. Students are able to focus on their homework rather than their familiar hunger pains. Underpaid laborers can work for hours without meals. In a sense, it can be argued that endemic economic woes in all of these beleaguered countries reinforce the use of khat as an escape from reality.

Image courtesy of Rod Waddington

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About Itziar Aguirre

Itziar currently works as a Property Sector Analyst at HFF, a commercial real estate capital intermediary. She holds an MBA in Accounting and Finance from the University of St. Thomas and an MSc in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics.

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