In the region where it originated, it’s known as “the flower of paradise.” Khat, a shrub known for the stimulant-like effect it produces when chewed, has been part of social and religious customs in eastern Africa and the Middle East for centuries, and though its side effects can become serious with prolonged use, experts generally consider it to be a mild and non-addictive substance—perhaps more akin to coffee than cocaine. Yet today, khat is banned in more than two dozen countries around the globe, particularly in Western nations like the US, where it is considered a Schedule I substance along with heroin, GHB, marijuana, and LSD. But, why is khat illegal at all?
Why did the plant become a matter of international scrutiny and, later, moral panic? The answer lies at the intersection of xenophobia, the War on Drugs, and the War on Terror. Khat contains cathinone, a natural stimulant considered a structural cousin of amphetamine. Cathinone was declared dangerous by the 1971 United Nations Convention on Drugs. In recent years, synthetic cathinones—sold under another name, “bath salts”—have received ample press and increased regulation. Bath salts is a term used in an attempt to skirt prohibition by marketing the compounds as “not for consumption.” Synthetics can run the gamut in terms of potency and purity.
Khat is different: It’s consumed differently and has a different legacy within international drug policy. The plant made headlines in the New York Times in the 1960s, early in the days of psychedelic reporting. In 1964, the legacy newspaper reported that the khat chewer “does not ingest enough of the active substance to harm his body directly,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Two decades later, the tone shifted and a series of events deemed khat illegal. Western governments really became concerned with khat in the 1980s and 1990s, as the plant was increasingly imported and used almost exclusively by immigrant communities from places like Yemen, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Alarm grew during the Somali Civil War when khat became associated with enemy combatants in the famous Black Hawk Down incident.
Though most accounts of its addictive and violent tendencies appear overblown in retrospect, khat remains criminalized by laws that disproportionately burden immigrant communities. To understand how we got here, DoubleBlind talked to experts that led us on a journey from khat’s origins to the present.
Khat Plant Seed: A Long-Held History
Khat, a flowering evergreen shrub of the Celastracae family, likely originated in the Horn of Africa, specifically Ethiopia. Today it grows wild at high altitudes from Afghanistan to South Africa, but its cultivation is mostly confined to a geographic strip including Ethiopia, Yemen, and Kenya.
An origin myth states that a shepherd discovered khat’s stimulant-like effects after seeing how happy and energetic his goats became while chewing it. Though sometimes dried and brewed into tea, khat leaves, and tops are most commonly chewed fresh for effects similar to coffee (whose social use began in this same region long after khat chewing was already well-established).
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In certain East African and Middle Eastern cultures, khat is chewed as part of cultural traditions dating back centuries. It can spur conversation in everyday social settings, while some Sufi Muslims chew it to fuel ecstatic trances or all-night prayer sessions during Ramadan. (Though controversial among Muslims, khat chewing—unlike many intoxicants—is not explicitly banned by Qur’an.) Khat is also popular with farmers and laborers seeking to avoid hunger and fatigue while working long hours. According to a highly informative 2012 article by Ezekiel Gebissa, a khat scholar and historian who belongs to the Oromo nation of Ethiopia and has studied in both the US and Ethiopia—the Oromo people of Ethiopia chew khat during important events like births, marriages, funerals, and naming ceremonies. In 2009, Hungarian researchers estimated that up to 10 million people globally used khat daily.
Over the past century, east African and Yemeni diasporas spread around the globe, particularly as refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia fled intense waves of conflict in the 80s and 90s. Along with these immigrants and their customs, khat proliferated to nearly every continent. Road, sea, and air travel facilitated its importation to Europe, North America, and all the way to Australia—first legally and later by smuggling. As khat’s increased prevalence awoke interest in its effects, risks, and sourcing, many governments pursued regulation or outright bans of khat trading and consumption.
Khat Uses, Effects, and Known Risks
Once harvested, khat leaves are typically packed into bundles and wrapped in banana leaves for freshness. It is chewed like tobacco, then retained in the cheek and chewed intermittently over two to eight hours for effects including excitement, loss of appetite, and mild euphoria. “It’s almost like natural Adderall,” Neil Carrier, a British anthropologist who has studied the use of khat in East Africa and its spread to the UK, tells DoubleBlind. “It can help you concentrate or work, but it can also make you feel good and quite talkative while with your friends.”
While chewing khat, people become friendly and even verbose in hours-long sessions, sometimes described as a din of overlapping voices. It’s also used by people studying, working in fields, or simply cleaning their house. The initial euphoria tends to be followed by a quieter, more introspective mood before a sometimes melancholic come-down. The downsides of khat, which may also include anxiety, hyperactivity, and manic behaviors, can be offset by using it within ritualized cultural containers, such as the bacha or afternoon chew, common in Ethiopia’s urban centers. As Gebissa documents in his article, the bacha often ends with consuming alcoholic beverages that level off khat’s effects so the chewer can sleep soundly.
Khat’s effects mainly come from two active ingredients, cathinone and cathine. The oral effects of pure cathinone are similar to those of amphetamines, though they set in twice as quickly. Drugs with faster onset are generally thought to be more addictive, but khat is far from the same as pure cathinone; it takes 2 to 3 hours of chewing khat for the cathinone to reach peak levels in the bloodstream. Still, prolonged khat chewing can raise one’s heart rate and blood pressure, dilate the pupils, and lead to constipation. Chronic chewing or chewing too high a dose (which is difficult given the amount of plant matter involved), may lead to symptoms like delusions, weight loss, mood swings, sleeplessness, and increased risk of heart problems. The possibility of khat-induced psychosis has been observed among predisposed patients at hospitals in the Horn of Africa, though it’s difficult to separate causation from correlation in such instances.
“Khat reinforces existing behavior,” Gebissa tells DoubleBlind. “If the chewer is a calm person, that comes out. If a hyperactive person, that too becomes obvious. In general, that contains small amounts of alkaloids that require oral dexterity to extract. After a long period of chewing, everyone could get high (nirvana).”
Long-term khat consumption begets tolerance, and there is evidence for possible dependence and addiction, particularly in studies on mice. Most research on humans suggests a relatively benign substance; chronic users can easily abstain and find quick relief from undesirable side effects after ceasing use. Traditional use of khat and ritual consumption lowers the risk of overuse, though globalization and urbanization have increasingly carried the use of the plant beyond such cultural contexts.
In 1980, the WHO classified khat as a “drug of abuse” that can produce psychological dependence. Yet, by 2006 the organization’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence indicated in a report that the “potential for abuse and dependence is low” and that “the level of abuse and threat to public health is not significant enough to warrant international control.” One year later, independent research led by British scientist David Nutt suggests that khat is less addictive than tobacco or alcohol and less dangerous for the health of users.
Is Khat Sale Legal? A Worldwide Question
Selling and consuming khat is legal in most of the countries where its use originated, including Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, and Yemen. Although, times aren’t necessarily easy for khat farmers. Kenyan farmers are turning to other crops amid export bans. Still, head to just about any other continent (with the exception of South America), and you’ll find a very different policy situation—drug scheduling deems khat illegal in most of the world. Some websites claim that selling khat seeds in places like the US and Canada is legal, but growing khat in these regions is criminalized. Khat prohibition stretches as far back as 1956 in Australia and 1957 in France.
Khat began turning up in Europe in the 1950s as global trade accelerated. According to Carrier, because the “full experience” of khat comes from chewing it fresh (within 24 to 48 hours of harvest), it was air travel that most effectively spread the plant to places like the UK, Italy, the Netherlands, and eventually the United States and Canada, following east African and Middle Eastern migration patterns. “Before it was illegal around the world,” says Carrier, “people would get it in small quantities thanks to a relative coming in by plane with bundles of it in their suitcase.”
Some websites claim that selling khat seeds in places like the US and Canada is legal, but growing khat in these regions is criminalized.
The importation and regulation of khat picked up in the late 1980s when the Somali Civil War propelled refugees to cities like Minneapolis and London. Regular air travel brought larger quantities of khat to the markets and shops of Europe and North America, where populations of Kenyan and Yemeni ex-pats were growing. For these immigrant populations, chewing khat “provides a setting that connects them to the homeland and eases… integration into the host culture,” Gebissa writes. Yet “what the immigrants deployed as a cultural institution that actively promoted social integration, a custom as common as having a cup of coffee, nevertheless set them on a trajectory that clashed with the values, drug laws, and norms of their new setting.”
Cathinone was declared a dangerous “Schedule I” drug in the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971, most likely for its resemblance to amphetamines in terms of effect. Yet this did not immediately implicate khat as an illegal substance. It took decades for most Western nations to restrict the consumption of khat: Canada and the US passed bans in the 1990s, with much of Europe following suit across the next two decades. After years of public debate, the UK made khat illegal in 2014. (Interestingly, Canadian provincial courts have consistently opted not to punish violators, citing a lack of evidence that khat is harmful.)
For a case study of why khat prohibition spread slowly, unevenly, and in the absence of damning scientific evidence against its use, we can look to the example of the US.
How Did Khat Become Illegal in the USA?
Even as khat spread around the globe, its use remained largely limited to specific cultural communities. When chewing among East African immigrants became noticeable to the larger US society in the 1980s, the initial reaction was one of indifference, according to Gebissa. “Authorities viewed khat as generally harmless,” he writes. “The official position of the DEA [in 1989] was that American users would opt for more potent street drugs than chewing leaves.” Yet within just a few years, historic events would lead US officials to a complete 180.
In the early 90’s, Somalia descended into chaos with the outbreak of civil war. Journalists deployed to the region observed the widespread use of khat, and in 1992, the Economist, New Republic, and US News and World Report all published ominous depictions of khat as a violence-abetting intoxicant. Public awareness of khat spiked in 1993, when the Battle of Mogadishu left 18 US servicemen dead, and media outlets blamed Somali atrocities on the chewing of khat. In Black Hawk Down, the 1999 book which immortalized this battle, khat chewers are described as “savage or deranged”; in the book’s 2001 film adaptation, an Army ranger warns comrades that Somali combatants are all the more dangerous for being “fucked up on khat.”
By the time those pop culture depictions emerged, the US prohibition of khat was well underway. The DEA added cathinone to Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act in 1993, noting that this implied “the placement of any material that contains cathinone”—including khat—“into Schedule I.” This did not have the force of law, but many states subsequently passed laws to ban khat.
Gebissa believes these policies were the result of pressure by conservative politicians to create a “wedge issue” around immigration. “The argument in Congress at the time was really non sequitur,” he says. “They said that khat was a gateway drug for young Americans [but] there is no evidence to support that khat made a crossover appeal to white America at all.” He cites khat’s mild effects and the strong chewing necessary to release them as reasons most US Americans are still more likely to turn to easier drugs like pills.
Yet while “the khat issue” was partly just a political tactic used to scare voters, the effects were disastrous for particular communities. Over the next two decades, hundreds of East African and Yemeni immigrants were prosecuted for khat possession.
A new wave of moral panic arose after September 11, when criminal justice authorities and researchers publicly suggested that the sale of illegally smuggled khat was helping fund terrorist groups, claims made as part of what Gebissa’s article calls “an attempt to connect the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, and the opposition to illegal immigration, using that as the case of convergence for all three concerns.” Besides one 2006 seizure of what was alleged to be $10 million of smuggled khat, these claims turned out to not have much merit.
Still, the damage was done, says Gebissa. What could’ve been merely “a local custom for… new immigrants” was soon being compared to heroin and cocaine by a DEA official. Gebissa notes that US laws make a distinction between cocaine and coca leaves (since chewing the leaves produces gentler effects) yet does not seem to account for the marked difference between chewed khat and pure cathinone—khat is illegal regardless.
Though federal judges have echoed scientific experts in stating that khat poses no real danger to the public, it remains widely illegal in the US, stirring up cultural clashes with grave consequences. After a DEA sting operation led to the indictment of 18 Somali immigrants in 2006, the LA Times reported that some defendants were shocked to learn khat was illegal, given its long history of safe and mild use in their homeland. Khat criminalization continues today: US Customs and Border Protection celebrated two major seizures of tons of khat in just the last two years.
Nonetheless, Gebissa doesn’t believe khat prohibition “has had any effect.” Though he has not systematically studied “chew culture” in the US, he says dried khat remains easily accessible in places like the Detroit metropolitan area, which has the country’s largest concentration of Arabs, where chewing helps immigrants “recreate their communities in a foreign land.”
So… Why Is Khat Illegal?
The story of khat reflects how cross-cultural misunderstandings and media outrage play a role in perpetuating a War on Drugs that targets communities of color. What one culture considers an everyday social substance akin to coffee, another views it as a dangerous, addictive drug worthy of comparison to heroin. It’s notable that United States law allows Adderall, a strong amphetamine, to be prescribed to children as young as six, but deems khat, which has similar yet milder effects, to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” barring even adults from using it.
Xenophobia against immigrants and Indigenous peoples continues to play a role in the criminalization of substances like marijuana, peyote, and psychedelic mushrooms, all of which are used in traditional spiritual and social contexts ranging from the Americas to Asia. Though the new millennium has seen media fervor subside and the legalization movement pick up steam, laws against substances like khat remain in place, promoting the punishment and incarceration of communities of color. We still live in what Gebissa called in 2012 “a political environment that is not ready to restore fairness and rationality to policymaking.”