Yemen, and its drug Khat

Yemen has been in the news quite a bit lately, recently on WNYC’s Backstory with Leonard Lopate. Jeremy Scahill, national security reporter for the Nation, made a short comment about one issue that has been buried from media attention for several years now: “The entire country for the most part is addicted to this drug called khat. And all the water in the country is used to grow this drug that everyone’s addicted to.” He added that U.S. diplomats are “out of the intelligence game” because they are prohibited from using the drug. Officials, spies, and journalists from other countries who use the drug while in Yemen are far more advanced in their knowledge of on-the-ground activity.


Man chewing khat


Khat, pronounced ‘cot’, is a flowering plant that produces an effect similar to (but usually less intense than) that of methamphetamine or cocaine. It is illegal in the United States, and also unpopular; because the plant has a very short shelf life, it is difficult to smuggle it from the Horn of Africa where it grows to the U.S without it losing its potency. In 1980, the World Health Organization classified it as a drug of abuse.

John Lancaster of the Washington Post wrote:

Khat is used by the lowliest goatherd and loftiest government minister. It defines the rhythms of the day. Government offices close at 2 p.m., allowing plenty of time to chew … They sprawl on cushions, puffing on water pipes or cigarettes and sipping from water bottles to combat the dehydration that is one of the Khat’s side effects.

Conversation, which flows rapidly at the outset, wanes as the Khat begins to take effect and the chewers approach “Soloma’s hour,” an introspective time that is often accompanied by the playing of the oud. …The typical session lasts from three to four hours, after which the chewer spits out his wad of Khat-mulch and goes home.”

If khat sounds similar to American culture of alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking, it is. But it is apparently not as dangerous. Although the WHO classified it as a drug of abuse, they also claimed it produces less psychologic dependency than alcohol or nicotine. Furthermore, in Melbourne the WHO did a study on immigrant Somalis who brought the khat-chewing habit with them to Australia:

Most of our khat-chewing participants reported that one of the main reasons for using the drug was to improve concentration while studying or working. Several participants worked as taxi drivers or had friends who drive taxis and admitted that they themselves or their friends chewed khat on the job to help them stay awake during their shift. However, in our open-ended interviews there was no mention, positive or negative, of the effect of khat consumption on an individual’s ability to drive. Our research did not produce any evidence to suggest a causal relationship between the use of khat and driver impairment.

It begs the question, why are U.S. diplomats banned from using the drug when it could help them in intelligence gathering in Yemen and other countries of interest to the U.S.?


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