This piece is part of the Africa and the War on Drugs debate – a series of articles and reviews commissioned to coincide with the launch of the latest book in the African Arguments series: Africa and the War on Drugs.
In recent years, Africa has become a key target in the so called ‘War on Drugs’, this is largely a result of its role as a transshipment zone for the smuggling of cocaine and heroin to Europe and North America. The story has received some attention in the international media, and from European and US authorities concerned about the trafficking of narcotics Europe-wards through the unregulated spaces of Sahelian Africa. However, there is one indigenous African drug that is causing increasing controversy both in and beyond the continent. This is khat – the stimulant stems and leaves of Catha edulis – a tree found wild and cultivated from Yemen to the Eastern Cape.
Opinions on khat are polarized: some prize it for its economic worth, ability to increase wakefulness and sociability, and even its capacity to induce peace; others lament it as the cause of health and social harms, a drain on economic well-being, and the cause of conflict.
The use or sale of Khat is not illegal under international law, but many countries in Africa, Europe and North America prohibit its trade and consumption. The UK is one of the few European countries not to have banned it, although the government is currently undertaking a review of the substance with a view to possible classification (the third such review to be held in the UK, the earlier two suggesting its harm potential did not warrant a ban). The stakes are high, and not just for Somalis, Ethiopians and Yemenis in the diaspora, but also for farmers and traders in East Africa who now export 2000 tonnes annually to the UK.
Khat is often compared to amphetamine, as its two main alkaloids bear a structural resemble to the drug. However, absorbing such chemicals from leaves and stems through chewing creates a much less intense effect than the consumption of isolated chemicals. In this respect, khat can be seen as analogous to coca: both contain alkaloids that are potent in concentrated form, but are much milder when contained within the plant.
Consumers speak of different varieties (and each producer country offers a selection of grades and varieties suiting all pockets) being more or less potent in effect – some varieties attracting considerable notoriety for their strength. But even so, compared to isolated compounds like amphetamine or mephedrone, khat’s potency is rather low. This doesn’t stop newspapers playing fast and loose in conflating khat with other – harder – drugs: an article in The Guardian from 2004, for example, pictured a bundle of khat with the headline ‘This has the same effect as cocaine and ecstasy. And it’s legal’.
Whatever its pharmacological potency, khat is ascribed great power in its effects both on the body and on society. Those who praise it speak of its ability to strengthen friendships and glue networks together, as well as the huge economic benefits for East African farmers, traders, exporters and so forth. Those who dislike it accuse it of leading individuals to addiction and eroding the fabric of family and community life. The latter view is frequently in evidence at present, especially in the UK, where many are campaigning for a khat ban.
For such campaigners, khat is the root cause of many ills facing Somalis in the UK, from high divorce and unemployment rates, to domestic violence and other crime. In the case of Somalia itself, khat was even suggested as a key cause of the country’s conflict at the time of the collapse of Barre’s regime two decades ago – if a substance can cause state collapse it must be powerful indeed! For those opposed to it, the feeling grows that if only khat were got rid of, then society in Africa and in the diaspora would improve markedly.
However, khat has certainly not hindered progress in all areas where it is consumed. In Nairobi’s Somali-dominated Eastleigh estate where I have recently conducted research, over forty shopping malls have been built in the last two decades, turning the estate into a major commercial hub. Capital from the khat trade helped fund some of these malls, and it is ubiquitous in the estate, chewing being one of the more popular leisure activities for its residents. While many in Eastleigh disapprove of it – the more religiously conservative seeing it as haram – others indulge avidly, many successful business people among them.
There is problematic consumption of khat in Eastleigh as there also is in the diaspora – especially by those with little in the way of opportunity, but regular access to remittances sent from abroad – however, as a leisure activity, khat consumption seems not incompatible with success in business and other work. Here lies an important contrast, between the extravagance of consuming a luxury such as khat when one cannot buy it without the help of the state or others, versus its consumption by those able to afford it themselves. Few begrudge the latter their chew (except those who see khat as haram), while the former are subject to harsh criticism.
Compared with Eastleigh, concern about khat is much more pronounced in the Somali diaspora, where its consumption is seen as further marginalizing a minority community from mainstream society and its opportunities. However, what research has been done suggests that the evidence for khat’s causal role in social harms in the diaspora is at best mixed and contradictory, and should be contextualized within wider social and cultural dynamics. Understanding the power of all drugs requires such contextualization, as the settings and patterns of consumption play a heavy role in determining their impact, and all the more so in the case of substances like khat that are not especially potent pharmacologically.
The ‘war on drugs’ rhetoric that we critique in our book gives far too much power to the substances themselves, leaving little room for understanding how substances and their pharmacological effects are molded by social and cultural processes. When substances are perceived as being highly potent, the standard policy prescription of prohibition often seems to be the only answer. The problem is that removing the substance itself through prohibition will not address the wider problems within which it was intertwined, while potentially causing greater harm through its criminalization.
In the case of khat, encouraging a clearer appreciation of causality and the socio-cultural context of drug use might just lead to a different policy approach than that of prohibition. This would take the needs and views of farmers, traders, chewers and wider society seriously, while eschewing the ineffective drugs war the world has for so long waged upon itself.
Neil Carrier is lecturer in African Anthropology at the University of Oxford. He is author of Africa and the War on Drugs – recently published by Zed Books in the African Arguments series.