Almost every morning, up to 16.5 tons of fresh khat arrives in Djibouti by land or sea from neighboring Ethiopia. By lunchtime, men all over the East African country begin chewing on the leaves of the mildly narcotic plant—a routine that can last for hours. Khat chewing is not a new practice. While its origins remain unclear, some experts believe that the popular ritual began in Ethiopia.

The inhabitants of the Horn of Africa have been chewing khat leaves since the 14th century, according to several manuscripts. For thousands of years, different communities, including the Ancient Egyptians and Sufis, used the gentle euphoric effect of the plant to induce a trance-like state for recreational and spiritual purposes.

The khat plant, or Catha edulis, is also known as kat, qat, chat, Kafta, Abyssinian Tea, miraa, and Bushman’s Tea. It is an evergreen shrub that is cultivated as a bush or small tree. Its young buds and tender leaves are either chewed fresh, or dried and brewed into a tea. The leaves of the narcotic plant have “an aromatic odor” and “astringent and slightly sweet” taste. Khat is more potent when it is masticated because it delivers a higher dosage of cathinone—the chemical stimulant in the plant.

"Khat" it Out: Is the Narcotic Plant Holding Back Djibouti's Development?

Khat leaves on a farm in southern Ethiopia.

Is Khat Harmful?

There is considerable debate over the severity of the impact of khat on its users. Even though the effect of cathinone is often compared to that of amphetamines, the effects associated with khat are much milder. So, while some experts are critical of the plant, labeling it an “amphetamine-like drug,” others simply call it a “mild social stimulant”—comparing the use of it to a person indulging in a daily caffeine fix.

The World Health Organization classifies khat as a “possible drug of abuse” that causes “excitement, loss of appetite, and euphoria” but has “less addictive potential than alcohol or tobacco.” Even though research on khat is still in its infancy, it is widely accepted “that moderate khat consumption has no harmful effects.” However, some believe that the long-term use of the narcotic plan can have negative side effects.

Increasing evidence is confirming that excessive khat consumption can lead “to aggressive behavior, hallucinations, [and] psychotic states.” Its consumption may also cause other health problems in users’ nervous, digestive, respiratory, and circulatory systems. The dangerous side effects of khat consumption raise one important question: should the narcotic plant, however mild, be legal?

The Prevalence of Khat

There are roughly 20 million khat consumers worldwide. The plant is sold in open markets and widely used by people in Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen, and parts of Kenya. In recent times, this ancestral ritual has developed into a modern, albeit informal, market that grew by seven percent in 2017, boosted by foreign investments.

Although khat is legal in Djibouti, it is forbidden in offices and public sector jobs. Nevertheless, it is “tolerated” on construction sites where men like Aburach, a welder originally from Yemen, chew on it to relax and be more effective. The Yemeni told France24: “Once I stop nibbling I feel lighter, so much that I actually work a bit more. I feel much more relaxed when I stop nibbling. I feel this urge to work more.”

Aburach’s coworker, Haishin, claimed that it was impossible for him to function without khat: “When I’m on khat, I can’t feel my body anymore. Even if a steel bar fell on me, I wouldn’t feel it. If there was some sort of exceptional circumstance, I could go to work without khat, but I would be a lot less effective.”

While the consumption of khat is legal in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, it is considered a controlled substance in many other countries, and it is a big drain on many Djiboutian homes—both financially and emotionally. On average, 40 percent of household income goes towards buying the stimulant.

Djibouti’s Dilemma: Getting Addicted to the Escape vs. Escaping the Addiction   

In 2017, Djibouti had a population of 956,985 according to the World Bank. Despite the steady increase in the country’s GDP per capita over the past 15 years, an estimated “16 percent of the population lived below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day.” The most recent official survey put the national extreme poverty rate at 21.1 percent. Unfortunately, poverty does not stop Djiboutians from purchasing khat.

“If he stopped with the khat, we could buy a house, we could have meat for dinner.”

Ali Houmed, a Djiboutian firefighter featured in the France24 documentary, spends between six to 11 dollars on khat every day, leaving Amina, Ali’s wife and mother of five, with a daily budget of about six dollars for the family’s meals. “If he stopped with the khat, we could buy a house, we could have meat for dinner. We want to buy the children clothes, to buy them shoes. If [Ali] were to stop taking [khat] that’s a lot of extra money,” Amina told France24. However, financial concerns were not Amina’s only objection to her husband’s khat habit: “Before we were in love, now he is just in love with khat, not with me.”

Although Ali is aware of the adverse effects that his khat addiction is having on his family, he feels trapped: “There is something that pushes you, it’s like a clock that chimes at a certain time and says to you ‘go on, go find something to nibble’ even if you don’t have any money. Go and ask the dealer to give you credit and then it just goes on like that.” Ali is not alone. While it is estimated that only 15 percent of women in Djibouti use khat, a staggering 50 percent of men in the country consume the narcotic plant.

Many men, including Ali, use it as an escape: “When you take khat, you get away from money problems, you get away from problems at home, you get away from all the problems that are weighing you down. When you take khat, you escape from all the problems in your life that you have to deal with.”

The High Price of Getting High

Djibouti greatly benefits from the khat market. It is the country’s largest informal economic sector. Therefore, there is little incentive to help people like Ali get rid of their addiction. Khat accounts for 4 percent of the country’s GDP. The government controls the khat market, which provides approximately 2,000 jobs for dealers in the capital alone.

The government also receives approximately seven dollars in tax for every kilo of khat sold, which accounts for 15 percent of the country’s tax revenues—around $17 million annually. This makes Djibouti’s officials hesitant to take any action to reduce the consumption of the plant.

“We can’t make decrees or laws or take drastic measures by which we say ‘alright, as of tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, consuming khat or importing khat is illegal,’” Mahmoud Ali Youssouf, Djibouti’s foreign affairs minister, told France24. “There is an entire economic sector which has grown up around the khat trade and that issue is at the heart of our long-term vision. Looking at how we can create an alternative, another kind of commercial interest so that those who live from this trade do not find themselves without any income from one day to the next.”

Since its independence on June 27, 1977, the state has monopolized the sale of khat and maintained its monopoly with the help of 144 families who are “lifelong shareholders” in the Société Générale d’Importation de Khat (Association for Khat Importers), an organization that oversees the importation of the plant. The khat trade’s annual turnover, estimated at over $50 million, is given to the loyal supporters of the regime.

Adan Mohamed Abdou, an opponent of Djibouti’s president, decries the way that politicians use khat to achieve their respective agendas. “The khat barons, as we call them. . .[are] very rich people who help prop up the ruling party, financially speaking . . . . During electoral campaigns, they also give out khat, as well as cash, that the ruling party has put aside so that they can win over plenty of people.”

“Khat” the Nonsense

Politics is the least of many Djiboutians’ concerns. Problems like unemployment are a much bigger issue in the East African country. Although dealing in contraband khat (sold for five times less than the legal plant) can lead to a 10-year prison sentence, many smugglers take the risk because there are few job opportunities.

Yazid, a recent graduate and smuggler, told France24 that “life for students is meaningless because they studied hard and have qualifications . . . but they’re not doing anything. They just stay at home the whole time, so I’ve put myself forward to take this risk so that I can earn a living.”

Dr. Abbate Ebo Adou, a doctor at Moukaram Clinic located in a modest neighborhood in Djibouti City, links the consumption of khat to the development of many chronic illnesses in Djiboutian society. Many of the country’s adult population suffer from cardiovascular disease and diabetes, among other things.

"Khat" it Out: Is the Narcotic Plant Holding Back Djibouti's Development?

Khat trees in southern Ethiopia. In recent years, farmers here have replaced decades-old coffee trees with more profitable khat.

The World Bank has attempted to reduce the consumption of khat among youth in Djibouti in recent years by “raising awareness of its consequences and boosting the skills young people need for employment.” But these efforts will not be sustainable in the future if there is no political will in Djibouti to support such directives. As it is, there are no programs or organizations to help those who want to stop consuming khat.

So, does khat hold back the development of Djibouti? The answer is more complex than it may appear at first sight. As long as Djibouti’s government continues to benefit politically and economically from the sale of khat, it is unlikely to take any serious measures to curb its consumption. Inevitably keeping many members of the small East African country’s population trapped in a vicious cycle of addiction, poverty, and political oppression.