Catha Edulis: Usage trends

Last modified: Thursday, 25. December 2008 - 9:39 am

For centuries, khat use was long confined to its native growing regions because the leaves needed to reach their destination within 48 hours of harvesting to retain their potency. However, with improved roads and air transportation, khat use spread to many other parts of the globe. During the 1980s, a flood of refugees from sub-Saharan Africa entered the United States, Canada, Australia, and various West European countries, bringing their habit of khat chewing with them.

Scope and severity

Worldwide, it is estimated that from five to 10 million people use khat on a daily basis. Many of the users originate from countries between Sudan and Madagascar and in the southwestern part of the Arab peninsula, especially Yemen.

In Yemen, khat use is so widespread (about 80% of the adult population) that even government officials use the drug openly. Also, visitors are encouraged to try it. However, in 1999, concerned that too many khat-chew-ing government workers were neglecting their jobs and whiling away their income, President Ali Abdullah Saleh attempted to set an example by announcing that he would limit his chewing to weekends.

Although statistics vary from country to country, estimates suggest that khat users spend from $6 to $20 per day on their habit. Growing and selling khat is also big business. The Yemeni production and distribution of khat traded to Somalia alone brings in an estimated $100 million annually. Khat must be imported because the Somalis only produce enough khat for local use. Within Somalia, 61% of the population use khat, with 18% reporting habitual use and 21% occasional use. Soma-lian warlords have been known to ration it out to soldiers on a daily basis. And in Djibouti, the United Nations estimates that approximately 98% of the men use khat, which is flown in from Ethiopia.

Khat use has also spread into Europe. In the United Kingdom (where khat is legal), it is occasionally imported in twig-like bunches for sale in some grocery stores and specialty health food stores.

Since the 1990s, news reports and statistics suggest that the U.S. market for khat, although more limited than other illegal drugs, has increased. Khat is smuggled into the United States and commonly sold in restaurants, bars, grocery stores, and smoke shops that cater to East Africans and Yemeni immigrants. It is also bought and sold by soldiers who encountered it during foreign service.

In 2000, U.S. Customs seized 70,008 lbs (31,755 kg) of khat on its way from East Africa and Yemen, up from 48,938 lbs (22,197 kg) in 1999. Marijuana seizures, by comparison, totaled 1.2 million lbs (544,310 kg) in 2000.

Age, ethnic, and gender trends

Traditionally, the bitter leaf of the khat plant was chewed primarily in social situations by older men in Yemen and throughout Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa. However, in the early 1990s, a growing number of men began chewing khat for up to 12 hours a day. The reasons for this increase in khat use has been attributed to feelings of hopelessness and boredom in the face of rising poverty and joblessness in many Middle Eastern and African countries.

Khat use also began spreading to an even greater number of women and children. In 2000, it was reported that 80% of Yemeni males, 60% of females, and an increasing number of children under the age of 10 had chewed khat daily for long periods of their life.

In Saudi Arabia, although the cultivation and consumption of khat are forbidden, and the ban is strictly enforced, khat chewing continues. Furthermore, the ban on khat is also supported by the Saudi clergy on the grounds that the Koran forbids anything that harms the body. However, this perspective on khat is not maintained by the Yemeni religious authorities.

During the 1990s, khat was introduced on college campuses in the United States and elsewhere, and a growing number of students began using the stimulant to stay up later at night. Khat was labeled the “poor man’s ecstasy.”

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