Drugs: Khat Calls


As he prepared to lead an 1,800-man expeditionary force into Somalia on December 8, Marine Col. Greg S. Newbold contemplated how much resistance he should expect from armed Somali clan members. "I'm worried about a young teen-age Somalian who has been chewing khat during the afternoon and all evening and wants to test the U.S. Marines," he told The New York Times.

Like many Americans, Newbold had no doubt seen news reports suggesting that khat was a significant factor in the violence and looting plaguing Somalia. After chewing khat, the leaves of a shrub that grows in East Africa and parts of the Middle East, Somali gunmen supposedly became hostile, aggressive, fearless, and apt to shoot people on the slightest pretext. The press coverage gave the impression that most, if not all, of the combatants in Somalia were severely addicted to the drug and would kill or risk death to obtain it.

The successful hyping of khat illustrates a problem that stands in the way of a productive debate about U.S. drug policy. When it comes to drugs, usually responsible journalists and publications throw caution and skepticism to the winds, rarely bothering to question assertions about negative effects. And unfortunately, Americans are prepared to believe almost anything bad about a psychoactive substance, especially an unfamiliar one.

Although few Americans had heard of khat until last year, it has a long history. Swiss pharmacologist Peter Kalix, an expert on the drug, reports that an Arabic medical book written more than 700 years ago recommended the leaves to soldiers and messengers for suppressing hunger and fatigue. It also suggested khat "for easing the atmosphere on social occasions."

The khat plant, Catha edulis, is indigenous to Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and the area from east Zaire to South Africa; it has also been cultivated in Saudi Arabia and Yemen for centuries. Users chew the leaves, which are especially potent when young and fresh, and swallow the juice; the leaves themselves may be swallowed or discarded. In countries such as Somalia and Yemen, khat has deep cultural roots; it is usually consumed in groups, often according to elaborate ritual, and in Yemen many homes have special rooms for the purpose. Users describe khat's main effects as increased alertness, concentration, confidence, and friendliness.

The main active ingredient in khat, cathinone, is a stimulant that closely resembles amphetamine. But because the usual serving of leaves contains only a small amount of cathinone, khat is considerably less potent than amphetamine. Indeed, Kalix notes that khat's bulk and the method of ingestion appear to set a natural limit on the concentration of cathinone that can build up in a user's bloodstream. Cathinone is absorbed slowly by chewing the leaves, while it tends to metabolize quickly. Probably because of its low potency, khat is classified as a Schedule IV drug under U.S. law, which means the federal government considers it safer than marijuana (a Schedule I drug).

The picture of khat that emerges from a review of the recent scientific literature is at odds with the picture painted by news coverage of Somalia. The discrepancies are all the more remarkable because khat researchers approach the topic from a clinical perspective that tends to accentuate the negative. In a 1988 article in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, for example, Kalix suggests "preventative prohibition" of khat in Western countries. Yet he acknowledges that "khat consumption does not engender physical dependence….Tolerance to the [central nervous system] effects of this drug does not seem to occur….there seems to be no craving for the drug….Discontinuation of the khat habit does not seem to create any major problem for the individual."

Kalix and other researchers do note that use of khat may lead to psychological dependence. But as addiction scholar Stanton Peele has observed, the same could be said of any habitual activity—sex, shopping, gambling—that serves as a source of gratification. Kalix also warns about the possibility of psychotic reactions, but he acknowledges that these are rare. Although millions of people consume khat each day, researchers have reported only a few cases of paranoia or violence allegedly precipitated by the drug.

To judge by much of the media coverage, however, violence is a routine side effect of chewing khat. For example, The New York Times, which erroneously refers to khat as a "narcotic," reported on December 7 that "it is considered generally unwise to move around Mogadishu at night, because by then the narcotic effect of the [teen-age nomads'] two-bunch-a-day habit has taken hold. Since the mixture of khat and guns has proved such a lethal combination (the addiction often generates the looting), some desperate Somali elders have facetiously suggested a 'khat for guns' swap to empty the town of weapons."

In a December 9 story, The Washington Times paraphrased a UNICEF psychiatrist's statement that "chewing khat is one of the factors causing much of the seemingly senseless violence." The article, headlined "Drug gives young gunmen courage," reported that U.S. troops would face Somalis "chemically wired from chewing khat, a twig…that gives its users a sense of euphoria and potency." In a similar vein, an aid worker told CNN's Frank Sesno during a September 11 interview that after chewing khat young gunmen "all think they're Rambo….They think they can conquer the country."

But the most extreme example of khat hype that I've come across is an article by a Nairobi-based free-lance writer, Jonathan Stevenson, in the November 23 New Republic. To begin with, the story is sprinkled with inaccuracies. In the second paragraph, for example, Stevenson says of khat chewing that "chemically, it's like taking a liberal dose of dexedrine," an amphetamine. The clear implication is that khat is at least as powerful as amphetamine, when in fact it's markedly less potent. Similarly, Stevenson asserts that "khat also generates a strong psychological addiction." But even those researchers who are worried about khat call the psychological dependence that can result from its use "moderate."

Stevenson's story—which is titled "Krazy Khat," with the kicker, Somalia's deadly drug war"—is breathlessly sensational from beginning to end. "After taking the drug," he writes, "restless adolescents become more and more agitated and less and less rational. A drug-conjured insistence on personal supremacy turns pubescent energy into casual, cheap violence. Raw tempers are released in the form of reckless driving, senseless arguments, and the playful exchange of gunfire. Gunshot wounds in Mogadishu…peak in the early evening hours, when the young gunmen are at the apex of their khat sprees."

Unlike Stevenson, I've never been to Somalia, and I won't second-guess what he and other reporters saw with their own eyes: young Somalis using khat and committing crimes. But I do question the causal link they've drawn between the two phenomena. The power that such accounts attribute to khat is inconsistent with the scientific research and with centuries of experience. It's true that khat's relatively benign reputation has been based largely on controlled use in social settings. In conditions of misery and violent disorder, excessive use and negative reactions would almost certainly be more common. But it's a big leap from that observation to the conclusion that a mild stimulant like khat—or any recreational drug, for that matter—routinely causes mayhem and murder.

During World War II, the Americans, British, Germans, and Japanese distributed amphetamines to their troops for some of the same reasons that Somali fighters chew khat—to combat fatigue, improve endurance, and raise spirits. Thus Allied and Axis soldiers, many of them adolescents, were taking a stimulant that is decidedly stronger than khat, also in very stressful circumstances. Yet we do not hear of combat excesses caused by amphetamines during World War II.

The image of khat created by the media in recent months brings to mind the reputation that marijuana once had. In the 1930s, the press and the federal government portrayed marijuana as "crimogenic," the causal agent in vicious and grisly murders. Today that notion, which never had any scientific basis, is rejected even by drug-enforcement officials. More recently, crack cocaine has acquired a similar reputation. Americans still widely believe that crack users frequently go berserk and kill people under the drug's influence. Yet a study of 1988 murders in New York City found that "crack-related homicides" almost always grew out of black-market disputes or crimes committed to support drug habits.

The idea that drugs cause evil deeds has a powerful hold on many Americans, including sophisticated journalists. In a December 8 interview on National Public Radio, Dr. Andrew Weil, an expert on psychoactive plants and associate director of the Division of Social Perspectives in Medicine at the University of Arizona, denied that khat is a dangerous drug. He said he had tried it a few times, and he compared the stimulation it produces to the effect of drinking a strong cup of coffee.

Reporter Linda Wertheimer seemed taken aback: "Well, we—a lot of the reporting from the area—you—you do get the impression that some of these—these young men who are—who are riding around Mogadishu in four-wheel-drive vehicles with mach—machine guns bolted to the roof are chewing these leaves and that it—somehow the two things are connected—the banditry and the drug."

"I think that's a false connection," Weil responded. "I think that khat is a relatively mild stimulant. It can certainly be used immoderately, and people can get a stimulant effect from it. It can suppress appetite, and as with any stimulant, if you take too much of it, it can make you jittery and anxious. But I—I can't really see it as a major factor in what's going on over there."

Yet Wertheimer was still attached to the image of a drug that, as Stevenson put it, "turns pubescent energy into casual, cheap violence." She pressed Weil to concede that khat chewing by young Somali thugs in Mogadishu deviates from traditional patterns of use. Thus she implied that the breakdown in order might have made khat an agent of lawlessness. But there's a much more plausible explanation: The breakdown in order itself resulted in lawlessness.

Why do otherwise reasonable people go to such lengths to salvage the idea of pharmacological compulsion? In the context of Somalia, one reason seems clear. It struck me the other day, while I was listening to Howard Stern's radio show. Stern's sidekick, Robin Quivers, noted that Somali bandits were taking a weird drug, which helped to explain how they could steal food from starving children and kill for trifling reasons. When people do horrible things, it's easier to blame their actions on a drug than to confront the human capacity for evil.

Jacob Sullum is associate editor of REASON.