Khat: A Harmless Stimulant or a Dangerous Narcotic?

Khat: A Harmless Stimulant or a Dangerous Narcotic?
Franck Metois/ Getty Images

Khat is a mildly narcotic plant that has been chewed and enjoyed socially for centuries in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It has widespread use in Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and parts of Kenya, and is particularly popular in Yemen. In any of these countries, you'll find the plant being sold freely at open markets and consumed with the same regularity as coffee in Western countries. However, despite its prevalence in parts of Africa and the Middle East, khat is a controlled substance in most other countries.

It is the subject of considerable controversy, with some experts describing it as a mild social stimulant and others labeling it an amphetamine-like drug. 

The History of Khat

The origins of khat use are unclear, although some experts believe that it began in Ethiopia. It is likely that some communities have been using khat either recreationally or as a spiritual aid for thousands of years; with both the Ancient Egyptians and the Sufis using the plant to induce a trance-like state that enabled them to communicate more closely with their gods. Khat appears (with various spellings) in the works of many historic authors, including Charles Dickens; who in 1856 described it saying "these leaves are chewed, and act upon the spirits of those using them, much as a strong dose of green tea acts upon us in Europe". 

Present-Day Use 

Today, khat is known by many different names, including kat, qat, chat, Kafta, Abyssinian Tea, miraa and Bushman's Tea. Fresh leaves and tops are harvested from the Catha edulis shrub, and either chewed fresh or dried and brewed in a tea. The former method is considerably more potent, delivering a much higher dosage of the stimulant part of the plant, known as cathinone. Cathinone is often compared to amphetamines, causing similar (albeit much milder) effects. These include excitement, euphoria, arousal, talkativeness, increased confidence, and concentration.

Khat has become a multi-million dollar industry. In Yemen, a World Bank report published in 2000 estimated that the plant accounted for 30% of the country's economy. In fact, the cultivation of khat in Yemen is so widespread that the irrigation of khat farms also accounts for 40% of the country's water supply. Khat use is now far more widespread than it was historically. Catha edulis shrubs now occur naturally in areas of Southern Africa (including South Africa, Swaziland, and Mozambique), while its products are exported to diaspora communities all over the world.

Negative Effects 

In 1980, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified khat as a "drug of abuse", with a range of potential negative side effects. These include manic behaviors and hyperactivity, increased heart rate and blood pressure, a loss of appetite, insomnia, confusion, and constipation. Some believe that if used long-term, khat can cause depression and an increased risk of heart attack; and that it may exacerbate mental health problems in those that already have them. It is not considered to be particularly addictive, and those that stop using it are unlikely to suffer physical withdrawals.

 

There is considerable debate over the severity of khat's negative effects, with many day-to-day users claiming that frequent use is no more dangerous than indulging in your daily caffeine fix. Most critics of the substance are more concerned with the social effects of using khat. For example, increased arousal and decreased inhibitions are thought to lead to a greater chance of unsafe sex and/or unwanted pregnancies. In particular, khat is a significant drain on the incomes of communities who have little cash to spare.

In Djibouti, it is estimated that regular khat users spend up to a fifth of their household budget on the plant; money that could be better spent on education or healthcare. 

Is It Legal? 

Khat is legal in many Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula countries, including Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, and Yemen. It is illegal in Eritrea, and in South Africa (where the plant itself is a protected species). Khat is also banned in most European countries - including the Netherlands and most recently, the United Kingdom, which listed the substance as a Class C drug in 2014. In Canada, khat is a controlled substance (meaning that it is illegal to purchase it without the approval of a medical practitioner).

In the United States, cathinone is a Schedule I drug, effectively rendering khat illegal. Missouri and California specifically prohibit khat as well as cathinone.

NB: Khat production has been linked to terrorism, with the proceeds generated from illegal export and sales thought to fund groups like al-Shabaab, the Somali-based cell of Al-Qaeda. However, this has yet to be proven. 

This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald.