The global trade in khat is worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year and in one Ethiopian town daily life centres almost entirely around the drug.
The global trade in khat is worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year and in one Ethiopian town daily life centres almost entirely around the drug.

By Anne Chambers

A new report by the World Bank has indicated that more men in war-torn Somalia are turning to drugs and suffering mental illness, in addition to experiencing higher divorce rates. More individuals are requested to donate funds to this nation, in the hopes that men and their families can avail of greater support. In Somalia, the traditional role of males is that of breadwinner of the family, yet since the 1991 collapse of the Siad Barre government, men have been facing an identity crisis, as more women become the family’s primary source of income. Some males have resorted to arranged ‘diaspora marriages’, marrying older women for greater financial stability. The World Bank based its report on interviews with 400 men and 90 women resident in Somalia and Kenya, finding that men commonly recall having suffered from a mental breakdown owing to drug use.

One of the drugs causing most damage is khat, which leads to depression and physical disability. Khat is a narcotic leaf which produces a state of euphoria, and is commonly used in Yemen and Ethiopia, in addition to Somalia. In the mountainous areas of Yemen, children as young as six or seven can be seen chewing the narcotic leaf. The drug, banned in the UK, causes mouth disease, mouth cancer, tooth loss, and, in some cases, mental illness.

Those who are heavily addicted to khat and cannot afford their habit turn to gang violence, while others use the drug as a stimulant, to temporarily improve their efficiency at work. The energising effect of khat can be attributed to two phenylalkylamines (cathinone and cathine), which bear a similar structure to amphetamines. It also contains over 40 alkaloids, glycosides, amino acids and tannins.

Some users of khat go mad and are chained to their homes, since psychologists, rehabilitation facilities and mental health centers are scarce in Yemen, Ethiopia and Somalia. Meanwhile, ‘the 571 gang’ leads the market in khat sales, with some 80 tonnes of khat sold daily in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital.

The khat plant itself is not considered illegal, though the possession of leaves or drugs generated from it, are.

In Somalia, the situation has been exacerbated by the banning of khat in the UK, which has inadvertently created a supply glut in Somalia, bringing prices down, to the delight of local users. Many users claim that if in the past, khat was a once-weekly ‘luxury’, the lower prices mean that they can now afford the drug on a daily basis. Some users spend hours on end chewing the leaf, despite acknowledging that the drug can make them feel paranoid. Some users ‘hear voices in their head’, as occurs with schizophrenia and other psychotic illnesses.

The legal situation has not helped Somalians: in Kenya, Yemen, Uganda, Ethiopia and Madagascar, prohibition of the drug has led to illegal importation, but in Somalia, prohibition was replaced with an import duty, so that khat use is widespread among many communities.

In order to successfully quit khat addiction, rehabilitation treatment is vital. Khat is highly addictive since it alters the pleasure response in the brain, increasing pleasure, arousal and positive thoughts. When users cease to chew the leaf, they go through powerful withdrawals and mood changes, craving the leaf to restore their upbeat mood. The effects of khat consumption last for 24 hours after the final dose, and the effects of physical withdrawal can be quite dramatic.

Successful rehabilitation can take weeks, sometimes even months. Gold standard programs are catered to the individual and usually involve individual and/or group therapy. The situation in Somali is such, however, that prevention is the ultimate goal in stopping this deadly drug in its tracks. The strengthening of the family unit and economic recovery is vital if men are to feel empowered and confident in their abilities once again.

In addition to targeting adult male users, attempts should be made to educate young children and youths alike, providing them with substance abuse education and creating programs targeted at those who are already addicted. It is also vital to develop collaborative solutions to stop drug use among Somali children and youths. Recent studies show that the drug situation is more dire than ever, with drug-related problems among vulnerable groups in Southern Somalia having reached new heights.