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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 January 2006, 03:39 GMT
Harmless habit or dangerous drug?
By Chris Summers
BBC News

The UK Home Office is expected to announce within days whether it will ban khat, a narcotic shrub which men in the Somali and Yemeni communities have traditionally chewed.

Khat is illegal in the United States but is entirely uncontrolled in UK. Is it really any more dangerous than tobacco or alcohol?

Facts about khat
Bunches of khat
There are two main types of khat - mirra and hereri
Mirra is grown mainly in Kenya
Hereri comes from Ethiopia
A bundle of khat costs around 3 in Britain
Khat is illegal in the US and a bundle there sells for between $50 and $80

The stimulant khat, or qat, is currently legal in the UK although it is banned in the United States, Canada and several European countries.

The plant - celastrus edulis - is grown mainly in Kenya and Ethiopia but most of the crop is picked and flown to Somalia or the Yemen or to expatriate groups in Europe.

Labour MP Mike Gapes said khat was "causing havoc in the Somali community" and he has called on Home Secretary Charles Clarke to make it a controlled substance.

The MP for Ilford South said: "It used to be chewed mainly by old men but it is now being used by young boys who are in a state of permanent intoxication.

Decision due soon

"There is evidence of serious psychotic consequences from long-term use and also a suggestion that it is carcinogenic."

Khat has been used for centuries by Somalis, not only for its energy-giving qualities, but also because it makes people more relaxed, talkative and friendly and is also said to improve sexual prowess, although in some men it can actually have the opposite effect.

Khat on sale in a market in Sana'a
Khat is popular among Yemenis as well as Somalis

Just before Christmas the Advisory Committee on Drug Misuse handed Mr Clarke its report on khat, which included a recommendation.

The report is due to be published later this month and, if it recommends a ban, it is thought Mr Clarke will push ahead with legislation.

Many Somali women resent the effect of khat on their menfolk and this opposition was highlighted by a recent survey.

Nearly 600 members of Britain's Somali community were interviewed and 49% said they would support a ban on khat.

The Yemeni community were not canvassed for their opinions.


The Home Office said of the survey: "Those who wanted to see it banned generally thought that Somali people would achieve more in British society, working and studying harder than they currently did with khat to distract them."

Faisa Mohammed, chair of the Bromley-based Somali Well Women Project, said the abuse of khat was damaging many Somali families in Britain.

She said: "Back home the men were the breadwinners but they came to Britain without jobs and took up khat, which has become an addiction. They chew all night and during the day they can't do anything."

Mike Gapes MP for Ilford South
There is evidence of serious psychotic consequences from long-term use and also a suggestion that it is carcinogenic
Mike Gapes MP

She told the BBC News website: "The women are going out to work, taking the children to school, doing the shopping and the men are doing nothing but chewing."

Khat was traditionally chewed by Somali men - it was until recently taboo for Somali women to chew - in a gathering place known as a mafrish.

Mohammed Ducaale, a Somali journalist based in Britain, said: "The mafrish is as important to the Somali community as the pub is to the British community. It is traditionally where people go to talk about their problems or plans."

To be of good quality khat has to be consumed as fresh as possible and the product is often flown overnight to its consumers.

The trade in khat in one Somali city alone, Hargeisa - the capital of breakaway Somaliland - is estimated at $300,000 a day.

The women are going out to work, taking the children to school, doing the shopping and the men are doing nothing but chewing
Faisa Mohamed
Somali Well Women Project

Somalia has been mired in political and military anarchy for more than a decade and many believe the violence between the country's various warlords has been exacerbated by the drug.

Certainly the Americans thought so when they banned it shortly after the infamous battle of Mogadishu in 1993, which was immortalised in the film Black Hawk Down.

US military chiefs, who lost 18 soldiers during Operation Restore Hope, were amazed by the endurance of Somali militiamen who fought on for days boosted by khat.

But Abdisalam Mohamed, who came to Britain 15 years ago, said the nature of khat chewing had changed since the day of pre-civil war Somalia.

The mafrish is as important to the Somali community as the pub is to the British community.
Mohammed Ducaale

Mr Mohamed, a journalist with the BBC's Somali Service, said: "Khat never used to be a problem. My father was a banker and he was a chewer. After work he would meet friends and they would chew and talk about the day's events and exchange ideas.

"But nowadays, especially in England, these people don't have jobs. They just sit around all day and all night chewing. They don't talk to each other and the mafrish is often unhygienic."

Mr Gapes said: "Somali groups in my constituency, especially women's groups, are horrified by the effect khat is having.

Somali fighters in 1993
In 1993 fighters boosted by khat took on the US Marines in Mogadishu

"The Somali community has high levels of unemployment and non-engagement with the rest of society. Although there are many successful Somalis, it is a community which is under-achieving and I believe khat is partly to blame."

But many Somalis feel khat is no more dangerous or anti-social than alcohol or tobacco and should not be criminalised.

Mr Ducaale said the problem, as in the case of alcohol, was with those who abused the substance.

"It is not in itself addictive but there are people, especially the young and unemployed, who will chew and chew for 10 hours non-stop, which is not healthy," he said.

Mr Ducaale said people who chewed too much were not only wasting their lives but were also in danger from mouth cancer - many of the khat farmers are believed to spray their crops with carcinogenic pesticides.

It is a stimulant and it stimulates the mind... you open up like a flower when you chew
Abdisalam Mohamed

Mr Mohammed, who chews in moderation, said people were abusing it but that was no reason to ban it outright.

He described the benefits of khat: "It is a stimulant and it stimulates the mind. You open up like a flower when you chew. You think positively and make plans for the future. It is a good way of socialising."

Mr Mohammed said while Somalis largely chewed khat in groups of men, for Yemenis it was something which was usually chewed at home with the rest of the family.

Mr Ducaale said he hoped the Home Office would stop short of a ban and introduce instead some form of licensing system which would require each mafrish to close at certain times and to pay regard to hygiene standards.

Survey supports ban on drug khat
27 Nov 05 |  England
Khat plant 'boosts sperm power'
28 Jun 04 |  Health
Ethiopia swaps coffee for drugs
10 Dec 03 |  Africa


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