Khat, chat, qat or miraa are the leaves of the shrub Catha edulis. And if you head to eastern Ethiopia or Somalia, you won’t have to be there long to notice the bulging cheeks of the khat chewer. Originating in the hills of eastern Ethiopia the khat plant has spread across large parts of East Africa and into southern Arabia. And for many of the inhabitants of this broad swathe of land, the afternoon khat chewing session has become almost a pivotal point of life.
Classed by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a drug of abuse that can produce “mild to moderate psychic dependence” it has been banned in most Arab and Western countries except for the UK where it’s currently legal (although there is talk of this changing).
Environmentally the consequences of khat are bad news. It’s a very thirsty plant and with the total amount of land given over to the plant growing rapidly (the profits to be made by farmers are far higher with khat than with other crops) it’s likely to have a major impact on water tables.
The effects of khat on the user have long been debated – most will insist that it gives an unbeatable high, makes one more talkative (at least until the comedown when the chewer becomes withdrawn and quiet), suppresses hunger, prevents tiredness and increases sexual performance. Others will tell you that it gives no noticeable high, makes you lethargic, slightly depressed, constipated and reduces sex drive! Others say that chewing khat is just like having a strong cup of coffee.
I observed that the claimed properties of khat are similar to that of the coca leaf (Erythroxylum coca) from which my dear readers know cocaine is derived. However, to my knowledge, no one is producing “khataine” yet. I don’t even know if it’s possible to produce a khat equivalent of cocaine, but I would think it would be.
While we were in Ethiopia and Somalia we were offered khat many times and decided to try it once on the long car ride back from Las Geel. Noticeable effects? Absolutely none aside from a bitter aftertaste. In fairness though, we probably did not consume enough as we only had a couple of leaves each. A German guy I talked to back in Ethiopia reported the unpleasant aftertaste, but also said he experienced a light buzz from his khat chewing experience.
The experience of myself and my Italian aside, it obviously does something given its wild popularity in this part of the world…