The khat plant is known by a variety of names, such as ‘qat’ and ‘ghat’ in Yemen, ‘chat’ in Ethiopia, ‘jaad’ in Somalia and ‘miraa’ in Kenya and Tanzania. It has been grown for use as a stimulant for centuries in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. There, chewing khat predates the use of coffee and is used in a similar social context.
Its fresh leaves and tops are chewed or, less frequently, dried and consumed as tea, in order to achieve a state of euphoria and stimulation; it also has loss of appetite as a side-effect.
Due to the availability of rapid, inexpensive air transportation, the drug has been reported in England, Wales, Rome, Amsterdam, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
In 1965, the World Health Organization Expert Committee on Dependence-producing Drugs’ Fourteenth Report did not schedule khat under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
However, in 1980 the WHO re-classified khat as a drug of abuse that can produce mild to moderate psychological dependence.
There are two main types of khat – mirra and hereri. The young leaves of the plant “Catha edulis” (khat) are chewed for a stimulatory effect. The psychoactive component is Cathinone.
Asked about the effects of khat on human beings, Foundation for Social Welfare Services (FSWS) head Joe Gerada explained: “Khat is a stimulant drug. Its consumption induces mild euphoria and excitement. Individuals become very talkative under the influence of the drug and may appear to be unrealistic and emotionally unstable.
“Khat can also induce manic behaviour and hyperactivity. Some cases of khat-induced psychosis have also been reported. Its effects may be described as similar to amphetamine; however users describe a calming effect when used over a few hours.
“In fact, researchers have found that Khat also contains cathedulins which induce the brain to release dopamine producing feelings of satisfaction and pleasure.
“Dilated pupils, which are prominent during Khat consumption, reflect the sympathomimetic effects of the drug, which are also reflected in increased heart rate and blood pressure.
“A state of drowsy hallucinations may result while coming down from Khat use as well,” Gerada told MaltaToday.
Asked about how much is khat addictive, especially when compared to hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, and a softer drug like cannabis, Gerada explained that regular use of Khat may lead to insomnia, anorexia and anxiety. In some cases it may make people feel more irritable and angry. “Khat also suppresses the appetite and results in constipation. High levels of heart problems and mental health problems have also been seen in regular users.
“Psychological dependence can result from regular use of Khat so that users feel depressed unless they keep taking it. Khat can make pre-existing mental health problems worse.
“There is some evidence of serious psychotic consequences from long term use and also a suggestion that it is carcinogenic (mouth cancer due to pesticides used on crops).
“Withdrawal symptoms that may follow prolonged Khat use include lethargy, mild depression, nightmares and slight tremor,” Gerada said.
Gerada explained that Sedqa had no clients who were currently undergoing a drug rehabilitation programme for khat addiction.
Khat is not illegal in the UK, and FSWS chief admits there is a a great amount of discussion and research surrounds Khat use, even in Malta.
“Although some feel that Khat is no more dangerous or anti-social than alcohol or tobacco and should not be criminalised, others maintain that the effects mentioned above, coupled to the western tradition of substance-abuse could pose a serious risk if de-criminalized.
“Sedqa agrees with this latter stance and as with all other substances, Sedqa has always maintained that ultimately, easier accessibility of any substance can lead to further abuse,” Gerada told MaltaToday.
Khat is legal in Britain, where it costs £3 per bundle, and also in the Netherlands and Israel. It is illegal in the US, selling for approximately $60 per bundle, as well as Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Switzerland, Germany, New Zealand, and Norway.
Its importation is restricted in Australia, while in Hong Kong a special prescription is required before taking khat.
Traditionally, khat has been used as a socializing drug, and this is still very much the case in Yemen where khat-chewing is predominantly, although not exclusively, a male habit.
In other countries, khat is consumed largely by single individuals and at parties. It is mainly a recreational drug in the countries which grow khat, though it may also be used by farmers and labourers for reducing physical fatigue and by drivers and students for improving attention.
Within the counter-culture segments of the Kenyan elite population, Khat (referred to as “veve”) is used to counter the effects of a hangover or binge-drinking, similar to the use of the coca leaf in South America.
In Yemen some women have their own saloons for the occasion, and participate in chewing khat with their husbands on weekends. In many places where grown, khat has become mainstream enough for many children to start chewing the plant before puberty.
In a neighbouring country, Somalia, the Supreme Islamic Courts Council, which took control of much of the country in 2006, banned khat during Ramadan, sparking street protests in Kismayo.
With the victory of the Provisional Government backed by Ethiopian forces in the end of December 2006, khat returned to the streets of Mogadishu, though Kenyan traders have noted demand has not yet returned to pre-ban levels.