Within the last decade the hitherto little known psychoactive substance of khat has emerged as a regional and international issue. In the Horn of Africa khat production has spurred an economic boom, but dramatic increases in consumption have raised public health concerns. Given the complexity of the topic spanning multiple academic disciplines and fields of professional practice, the need for a systematic overview is urgent.
The article reviews the status of khat, the most recent plant based psychoactive substance to reach a global market, and considers policy making processes in general and the framework of drug control in particular. The risk assessment and classification of psychoactive drugs is a contested arena where political, economic and moral agendas collide, leaving countries that have banned khat, with significant social costs. To best manage the risks arising from the increasing availability of khat it is therefore suggested to draft a regulatory framework with clear objectives and guiding principles.
The regulation of khat, one of the most recent psychoactive drugs to become a globally traded commodity, remains hotly contested within different producer and consumer countries. As regimes vary, it has been possible to compare khat policies in Africa, Europe and North America from different disciplinary perspectives. The research established the significance of khat for rural producers, regional economies, as a tax base and source of foreign exchange. At the same time, khat as a psychoactive substance is associated with health and public safety problems that in turn are met with often ill-informed legislative responses. Bans have in turn lead to the criminalisation of users and sellers and illegal drug markets.
The study aims to review and analyse the varied East African discourses on the effects of khat use on libido, fertility, transmission of HIV, prostitution and rape. Khat is associated, by consumers and its detractors alike, with changes in libido and sexual performance. Although there is no evidence to support their claims, detractors of khat use argue that khat causes sexual violence, causes women to enter sex work, and that chewing causes the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including the HIV virus.
A grey area has emerged between what is legal and what is not as states struggle with how to respond to the many new synthetic compounds emerging onto the market. Of the various types of ‘Legal highs’ the seminar focused on stimulants because of the parallels with the other main drug-policy issue of the moment; i.e. the status of traditional herbal stimulants. These older discussions have been reinvigorated by: Bolivia’s efforts to de-schedule coca-leaf at UN level; the debates on the status of khat between EU States, and of kratom across Asia; and the increasing stride of legitimate cannabis use on the domestic front, as in for example Spain.
Over half of EU countries, as well as the United States and Canada, ban the stimulant qat, a sort of mild amphetamine. But attempts to do so in Britain, most recently in 2005, left experts unconvinced that the stuff was so harmful to mind, body or society that dealing in it should be made a crime. Thinking may now be changing. Is banning qat the right move? Probably not. It has not broken into the mainstream.