While banned in many countries, chewing khat is commonplace in Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa region. Many see it as a cultural activity rather than a societal problem – but others believe it is destructively addictive and a gateway drug – writes Robbie Corey-Boulet for AFP.
Yonas Getu Molla started chewing khat as an architecture student, when he and his friends would munch on the leafy stimulant late into the night to help them study.
When they closed their books, their heartbeats racing, they would seek out depressants like vodka and cannabis to dull the plant's amphetamine-like effects so they could sleep.
Yonas blames khat for leading him into drug and alcohol addictions, which cost him his career, his savings and the respect of his family. "One substance would follow the other substance. It's like a coin – the back and the front,” he told Corey-Boulet in the article, published in MedicalExpress.
At the state-run Substance Rehabilitation Centre, he has been forced to give up khat alongside his other addictions – a rare approach in a region where few are trying to tackle the controversial habit.
Khat is a flowering plant native to the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula, according to Wikipedia. The leaves and buds of the khat plant contain the alkaloid cathinone, a stimulant said to cause excitement, loss of appetite and euphoria.
Some users are frank about the side effects: loss of appetite, damaged teeth and lack of sleep.
The habit can also drain household finances. A user in the capital Addis Ababa would expect to pay around $4 a day for khat from the eastern city of Harar, long a centre of production.
Ethiopia's average annual per capita income is $783 (705 euros), according to the World Bank.
A gateway drug
Welday Hagos, a clinical psychologist and director of the Mekele-based centre – Ethiopia's only free, long-term drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility – believes that khat is a gateway drug to harder substances.
He told AFP that more than 80% of the 500 patients who have stayed there since it opened in 2015 started out chewing khat.
"After that they add cigarettes, after that they add alcohol. That's why it is the main gate for different drugs," said Welday. "We are not on the right track," he said. "We have to increase the knowledge of our population of the consequences of khat chewing."
Much like harder drugs, quitting khat takes a physical and emotional toll on long time users, Welday said. They complain of everything from irritability to nightmares and wild fluctuations in appetite.
There is little consensus among health experts on how addictive khat actually is. But domestic consumption is growing, especially among university students, Welday said, referring to several studies…
Full report on the MedicalXpress site