Canadian Somalis are complaining about being targeted for their use of khat, a shrub whose stimulating leaves have been chewed and brewed in tea by Muslim cultures for centuries. Khat (Catha edulis) is enjoyed by about half of Canada’s 50,000 strong Somali community, and is used socially by 80% of adults in some parts of East Africa.
Traditionally, khat is used during cultural and social gatherings, and as a spiritual experience. In different regions khat is also known as qat, mirra, tohai, Abyssinian tea, and other names. Users claim the herb lifts spirits and sharpens thinking. When its effects wear off, it can cause mild lapses of depression. Khat leaves have a bitter taste and must be consumed fresh. They are often wrapped in banana leaves to preserve potency.
Like the Chinese herb ma huang, khat contains the active ingredient norpseudoephedrine. The synthetic form, ephedrine, is sold over the counter in cold remedies and diet pills. Both forms are close chemical cousins of methamphetamine. Khat is rich in vitamin C, which counteracts some of the negative effects.
Khat is legal in much of the world, including the UK and most of Africa. However, the UN and World Health Organization have been promoting the prohibition of khat. In the US, khat itself is considered a Schedule IV substance, although Cathinone, a active ingredient found only in fresh-picked leaves within 48 hours of harvest, is classified as a Schedule I drug.
When Canada’s Parliament passed the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in 1998, they included the previously legal khat into the updated prohibition. Suddenly many thousands of khat-chewing Somalis became criminals in the eyes of the law.
When first questioned about the reason for banning a herb used culturally by a small minority, Justice Department’s senior counsel Paul Saint-Denis spat out “It doesn’t really matter what the hell they do in Ethiopia, the fact is that this is Canada and these are our laws.”
Many Somalis were not even aware that their favourite herb had been banned. The federal government made no effort to publicize the impending prohibition, or to initiate any debate with the Somali community which would be affected.
Now, two years after the law came into effect, khat-chewers in Toronto are surprised to find themselves subject to the drug war machine. Complaints are piling up of homes being searched without warrants, and harassment and theft by police.
If the prohibition against khat continues, we can expect to see khat smugglers turning towards more concentrated versions of khat extracts, rather than smuggling the bulky fresh leaves. Some labs have already been discovered in the US producing meth-cathinone, a synthetic form of cathinone, khat’s main active ingredient.
Will this safe and culturally relevant herb be forced down the same dark path of prohibition and replacement by a more harmful synthesized version, like opium and coca leaf before it?