Research Note: Crime, Chemicals, and Culture: On the Complexity of Khat

By Armstrong, Edward G. | Journal of Drug Issues, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Research Note: Crime, Chemicals, and Culture: On the Complexity of Khat


Armstrong, Edward G., Journal of Drug Issues


In 2006, khat was the object of a federal government operation, which dismantled a Somali trafficking organization and seized five tons of the plant valued at $2 million. Khat is an evergreen tree that grows in Africa. Its leaves are chewed as a stimulant by six million people every day. This paper describes the complexity of khat, beginning with an overview of its international usage and its contradictory portrayals. Primary concern, however, is focused on khat's complexity in terms of its criminal, chemical, and cultural dimensions. According to the FBI, khat is a controlled substance. But others disagree. A khat plant might contain cathinone, a Schedule I drug. But shortly after harvesting, cathinone decomposes. Throughout history, colonizers have used laws against khat to control indigenous Muslim populations. In the U.S., utilization of khat is central to the lives of many members of immigrant communities. Targeting khat can be viewed as targeting members of these communities.

INTRODUCTION

Khat is an evergreen tree that grows wild throughout parts of Africa and Asia. The Arabic word "khat" is the etymological root the plant's generic botanical name, Catha edulis (from the Greek word meaning edible) (Dlamini, 2004). Khat use has been traced to the 6th century (Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs [Advisory], 2005). For over 700 years, the plant has been regularly utilized for its stimulant effect. Every day, an estimated six million people chew khat (Odenwald et al., 2005). Fresh khat leaves contain cathinone, a component that "resembles amphetamine in chemical structure" (Odenwald, et al., 2005) and is sometimes called a "natural amphetamine" (Kalix, 1996, p. 69). The purpose of this paper is to examine the complexity of khat in terms of its criminal, chemical, and cultural dimensions. First, according to the FBI, khat is a controlled substance. But the plant is not explicitly listed in any code. Next, unique aspects of khat's chemistry make its criminalization particularly problematic. Finally, khat is an accepted part of recreational and Muslim religious activities of Somali, Ethiopian, Yemeni, and Eritrea immigrant communities. Targeting khat can be viewed as targeting members of these communities. Before examining these issues, an overview of the khat phenomenon is necessary.

OVERVIEW

USAGE-WORLD WIDE

Khat chewing is a common and legal pastime "in the countries of the horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Somalia, Somaliland, Kenya, Eritrea, Djibouti and Uganda) and across the Arabian Sea into Yemen and Saudi Arabia" (Advisory, 2005, p. 11). Here Muslims are the primary consumers (Advisory, 2005; Beckerleg, 2006; Bengali, 2006; Cox & Rampes, 2003; Trellu, 1959). Many Muslims use khat to stay alert during long nights of prayer. Consequently, for non-Muslims, khat-chewing is "a sign of conversion to the Islamic faith" (Gebissa, 2004, p. 52).

Where khat use is common, individuals typically reject the hegemonic notion that khat is a drug. First, in Yemen, most religious scholars chew khat. For them, it is not a drug or comparable (Milich & Al-Sabbry, 1995). Next, khat-using Somali respondents living in England clearly distinguish Qayile, a Somali term translated as "khat-chewer," from the negative term, "drug user" (Nabuzoka & Badhadhe, 2001, p. 14). Finally, the African Journal on Drug and Alcohol Studies solicits manuscripts on two kinds of substances: (1) "psychotropic and addictive drugs" such as alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, and heroin, and (2) "traditional substances used in different parts of Africa" such as kolanuts and khat (Babor, Stenus, & Sawa, 2004, p. 140). Table 1 provides percentages of khat use in selected countries.

European countries are divided as to khat's legality (Advisory, 2005). Table 2 shows the legal status of khat in many European nations. Recently, the Netherlands (Azarius, 2004) and the United Kingdom (Advisory, 2005) initiated investigations concerning the potential criminalization of khat.

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