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Commentary: On Khat (Chat): Should Ethiopia criminalize it or Not?


A trader carries bundles of Khat (Chat) for the market


Hewan Semon

Addis Abeba, July 27/2017 – Increasingly popular among the youth of Addis Abeba, Khat, commonly known as Chat by Ethiopians, is a controversial perishable stimulant. Attempts, albeit unsuccessful, have been made to link the use of Khat with serious health issues such as psychosis, insomnia, paranoia, and depression. But it is, nonetheless, an addictive stimulant. For these reasons, Khat is labeled as a quasi-legal drug and identified as an illegal, illicit Class C drug in countries such as Canada, USA, UK, but it is allowed to flourish in the Horn of Africa and Yemen. The popular discourse in Ethiopia is one that looks down on the consumption of Khat, linking it simply to youth unemployment, health detriments and socio-economic chaos.

In 2014, there were about 500,000 farmers who cultivated Khat in the Horn of Africa. It is now the single most ‘important commercial crop in Yemen, Ethiopia’s second most valuable export commodity, and the most valuable commodity traded through the entry port of Djibouti’.

In Ethiopia, although Teff is the staple food and coffee the number one cash-crop, farmers are increasingly shifting to the production of Khat instead as it is harvestable throughout the year, can grow in low quality soil and yields higher income. Internationally, Khat presents a case where a non-western commodity has appeared in the global market, sustaining the economies of several countries and most importantly, controlled dominantly by groups from the producing regions, i.e. Ethiopians, Somalis, Yemenis and Kenyans, with only a very small number of outsiders having managed to break in. It is also impressive in its role to have spread a culture alien to the West, in several western countries.

In Ethiopia’s capital Addis Abeba, (and elsewhere outside the capital), a rapidly growing number of youth are involved in chewing Khat. Its consumption is primarily time-consuming – appealing to unemployed youth. It also doubles as a hunger suppressant for many poor urban dwellers who can’t afford a meal a day. Yet, despite the grim view correlating hopelessness, many who chew the leaf in large group settings say that the activity itself provides people with opportunities to discuss, criticize and contemplate socio-economic and political conditions that surround them. As such, Khat consumption creates a venue for sharing ideas, distressing and/or bonding. Furthermore, in areas such as the ancient city of Harar, where Khat has been in use for over 500 years, Muslim Imams attach historical and religious significance with it. This use of Khat in Islam has become a source of religious pride as some religious leaders chew Khat so-as-to stay up long hours to read Holy Scriptures. Undoubtedly, because more Christians and non-Muslims in Ethiopia are consuming Khat, the drug fosters a sense of community that eludes religious differences and blurs such distinctions. (This, of course, does not disregard the significant number of Muslims in Ethiopia that do not condone or support the use of Khat).

The west’s war on drugs

In the past few decades, the ‘war on drugs’ has led to a banning of Khat in the West and a push towards controlling its production, consumption and transportation. Tighter border controls among western countries and the banning its trade have led to serious consequences on traders and producers of the Horn of Africa. Sanctions prevent the expansion of legal trade of Khat in Europe, leading to more drastic changes. Such labeling of Khat internationally pushes the trade underground, turning what are legal traders into ‘drug pushers’. Thus, the current push towards criminalizing the trade of Khat simply allows for the creation of effective criminal groups. The issue with this is that, global influences tend to “amplify local concerns and provide a rhetoric that can be deployed in the local arena to empower arguments and to fuel anxieties”.

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Hints of this are visible in Kenya’s recent confusing stand on Khat, with the health minister claiming Khat is dangerous, and the government denying it. This indicates that Horn of Africa governments might soon be pressured by donor countries into criminalizing Khat, without having effectively eliminated the demand for the crop.

Of Khat and Ethiopia

Khat users are young and simply, the most productive segment of the society in Ethiopia. Although there are little or no research evidences are available to prove the economy would develop were it not for Khat, the symptom of having a drug addicted young population is devastating to the political, social and economic fabric of any society. Further, while youth claim to have found a space to discuss issues in Khat sessions, hard hitting questions that need lasting solutions linger: such as how likely are they to actually contribute meaningfully to their societies? Or, why are people drawn to chewing Khat in cities like Addis Abeba? Better yet, if chat consumption has been a tradition in Ethiopia for over 500 years, why are people alarmed with its consumption now? Or does unemployment lead to Khat-consumption or is it the other way around?

The consumption of Khat in Addis Abeba is emblematic of deeper socio-economic and political conditions that nurture its production as well as widespread distribution. This is indicative that any discussion on Khat should reach beyond simply classifying it as an illegal drug. In Jan. 2016, Addis Standard discussed the concerns of having no clear policy guideline governing a leaf that not only sustains millions of its farmers throughout the country but also boost its economy (it is the fourth leading export item).  Not much has changed between now and then.

Beyond the policy matter however, there should also be focus on how to minimize root-causes that provide youth with ample idle time to spend on chewing the leaf and farmers the incentive to switch its cultivation. Until this issue is tackled, blanket criminalizing of Khat will only push its traders, consumers and producers into the margins and provide the ground for illegal and criminal groups to flourish. AS

Photo: AddisInsight

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