The Hugely Popular Drug You've Never Heard Of

QAT_1Illustrated By Ly Ngo.
On June 24 of this year, the U.K. joined a growing number of countries in banning khat, a narcotic plant used as a drug by some 20 million people around the world. Grown as a cash crop on a massive scale in Ethiopia and Kenya and then shipped to nearby countries such as Somalia and Yemen but also to Europe, China, and Australia, khat fuels a global industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Now, concerned about its role as a source for illegal khat exports to other countries, the U.K. has criminalized the sale and possession of the drug, punishable by maximums of two and 14 years in prison, respectively.
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In Somalia, khat (pronounced “cot”) is closer to a national fixation than a pastime. Those who consume it (primarily men) spend hours in cafés, public squares, and private homes chewing, talking, and getting high — not working, as concerned wives and public officials point out, but lavishing time and money on drug-powered conversation. In May of 2013, two friends and I travelled from the East African country of Burundi, where we were based as aid workers, to Somaliland, the autonomous northern region of Somalia. Burundi is green, with rolling hills layered in crops and punctuated by small churches, and we were compelled by its contrast with Somaliland, which is desert-y, windswept, and studded with whitewashed villages and mosques. Its culture is a blend of African heritage and Arabic influence from centuries of maritime trade. We planned to see Laas Geel, a network of caves covered in perfectly preserved, five- to 10-thousand-year-old rock paintings. We also planned to share in one of Somaliland's most cherished traditions: We were going to chew khat.
Khat's effects derive from its naturally occurring cathinone, a chemical with structure and effects similar to those of amphetamines. It releases surges of dopamine and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that induce alertness and concentration — as well as sensations of euphoria and elation. Remember the “bath salts” craze from a few years back? Bath salts contain synthetic versions of cathinone; the drug is associated with hallucinations, extreme aggression, suicidal thoughts, and, in one case, a man eating another man’s face. (Khat chewers, on the other hand, report feeling chatty, confident, and concentrated, not cannibalistic.)
QAT_2Illustrated By Ly Ngo.
Weighing in on khat’s consequences, the World Health Organization (WHO) describes “rises in blood pressure and heart rate” that return to normal following cessation of use. The sudden flood of dopamine that cathinone provides can lead to dopamine depletion, which has been linked to aggression and depression, as well as increased tolerance and dependence. Long-term khat-chewers risk serious gastro-intestinal irritation and gum disease, while heart patients who chew khat are at higher risk of heart failure than heart patients who do not; the WHO warns of possible cardiovascular consequences for heavy chewers with healthy hearts, as well. Khat, it seems, occupies a space between coffee and cocaine in terms of its effect (and many of its side effects) — somewhere in the Adderall area of the spectrum, by my estimation.
After flying from Burundi to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, my friends and I hopped a series of lively public buses to cross the 420 hilly miles between Addis and the Ethiopia-Somalia border. There, we transferred to an armed-guard-equipped private car for the two final hours of our journey to Somaliland’s capital city, Hargeisa. The Al-Qaeda-aligned terrorist group Al-Shabaab is based in southern Somalia, and the threat of terrorist activity in Somaliland is real, especially where Westerners are concerned. We had taken all recommended precautions — except for the one about not visiting Somaliland in the first place.
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This spring-break-on-steroids was the realization of a shared thrill-seeking streak and a defiant desire to prove those U.S. State Department warnings overblown. We were living in Burundi, after all (a country that’s been on the U.S. watch list for years), and one of the greatest threats we'd faced there had been motion sickness at the hands of taxi drivers who treat the hills like NASCAR tracks. Still, we were jittery; we couldn’t help but look over our shoulders every few minutes.
We arrived without incident in Hargeisa, a sprawling collection of low, white-and-tan buildings settled among the dunes. It was hot out, but not unpleasant as we checked into the faded, 1950s-era Oriental Hotel. Just being in the city felt like we had gotten away with something; we were already elated, and we hadn’t even tried the local specialty. It didn’t take long to spot a vendor hawking those unmistakable waxy, dark green leaves, fresh and still on the stalk. With no sense for the right “dosage,” we bought several stalks and seated ourselves in a public square nearby. We’d already seen scores of Somalilanders chewing khat in public, so we took a few tentative bites. The bitterness made me cringe. We chewed until we had sucked the moisture out of the leaves, and then stuffed more into our mouths. I may not have been enjoying the taste, but I was entranced by the novelty of sharing in a social tradition that was so far outside anything I had experienced, alongside locals who seemed to welcome our presence.
QAT_3Illustrated By Ly Ngo.
“Khat!” a man sitting nearby exclaimed, delighted to see Westerners indulging. “Your mind will be one-hundred one-hundred.” Another man, who introduced himself as Nabil, did not approve: “Khat is horrible,” he informed us earnestly. Nabil wanted to be a rapper one day — he named Eminem as is his idol — and he figured he’d never make it big if he sat around all day chewing like his elders did. Not only does khat kill chewers’ work ethic, Nabil told us, but Somaliland doesn't profit from the crop; it isn't grown locally, but is rather flown in from Ethiopian farms twice a day.
Cathinone oxidizes quickly, meaning that khat loses its potency within hours of harvest (the morning shipment won’t produce the desired effects if chewed in the afternoon), so khat dealers and vendors move fast. And, the demand of Somaliland’s khat chewers keeps pace. But, to khat critics, the plant represents foreign subjugation: the exodus of money from a promising candidate for nationhood in exchange for a stagnating workforce and sluggish economy.
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As we talked and chewed, the crowd around us grew. I began to feel uncomfortable. Some in the crowd laughed at the sight of we foreigners struggling to contain gobs of green sludge in our mouths; others stared at us with disapproval. “You shouldn’t do that,” someone hissed at me and the other female in our group. “That’s not for women.” That was our cue. We'd clearly overstepped a boundary. We grabbed our leaves and made for the hotel to chew in peace — a little abashed that we’d caused a public scene.
We’d been chewing for maybe an hour at this point, wondering if we would ever feel it. Sitting on our hotel room floor, I did feel slightly nauseated, and sick of the taste. Chewing khat felt like gnawing on mistletoe (or at least what I imagine that would be like). Finally, though, I began to feel something. And, that something was a desire to talk. Apparently about politics. About Al-Shabaab and Burundi and post-conflict societies and the rest of our planned route through this country and our motivations for our nonprofit work and… I started to see why this is such a social drug. Not that my friends and I shied away from any these topics before — now, though, we were even more enthusiastic to hash them out.
The physical feeling was energetic, as well; impromptu hotel-room dancing ensued. We weren’t hungry — hadn’t been for hours — but water and soda were a must, to stave off dehydration and counteract that evergreen-shrub taste. The timeline became fuzzy (had we been chewing for two hours? four?), but then, the comedown arrived: gradual, unobtrusive, manifested as a touch of irritability and a somewhat lowered mood. My friends and I went to dinner and picked at our food, listless. It had been an enjoyable afternoon, but nothing wild, and nothing that had us rushing out to buy more khat.
QAT_4Illustrated By Ly Ngo.
In the U.S., both cannabis and cathinone are Schedule I drugs — “dangerous substances with no recognized medical uses and high potential for abuse,” in the same category as heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. While khat itself isn’t illegal, when cathinone was criminalized in 1993, the cathinone-containing khat leaf was implicated along with it. Especially after our mild khat experience, the designation seems excessive. Long-term, heavy use is, of course, far different from our afternoon-long flirtation with the drug, and may indeed negatively impact the economies of countries that import it, but do not grow it — though figures that illustrate this are hard to come by.
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But, instead of criminalizing it, we may do better to treat khat use as a question of public health, addressing it with education and resources for breaking dependency when it arises. Criminalization singles out for punishment the East African and Arabic communities that use khat, without offering any replacement for a cultural tradition that has existed for hundreds — even thousands — of years; it is likely to push the industry underground rather than stop it, all while putting millions of people around the world out of work. In Kenya alone, the $130-million khat industry supported 500,000 farmers prior to the U.K.’s ban. What’s more, a team of experts that was assembled to advise the British government on khat’s potential harms concluded that the khat industry has no discernible link to serious or organized crime — an accusation that has been levied against khat by its critics in the past — and that it would be “inappropriate and disproportionate” to criminalize the plant. The government ignored these experts, electing instead a drug-war tactic the full implications of which remain to be seen.
Granted, my “Legalize It!” attitude is political, not personal; I can’t say I’d make khat a habit were it ever to become legal in the States. In the quest for wakefulness, a latte does the trick without the bitterness and the green-stained lips, tongue, and teeth. But, if I find myself in one of the countries where khat consumption remains legal, I’ll welcome the chance to chew again. Though, next time, maybe not in public.
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