The Cost of Catha Edulis

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Until recently, Nairobi's Wilson Airport was busiest just before sunrise. Kenya-based Somali traders would crowd the padlocked metal gate, their four-wheel drives and pickup trucks snaking back along the entrance road. When the gate opened, they would pour through to waiting commuter planes, filling them with boxes of food, coffee and gifts for families back home. But by far the most abundant commodity loaded onto the planes was khat, also known as miraa, a stimulant leaf from a shrub-like tree of the same name.

The pre-dawn scramble ended last August, when President Daniel arap Moi closed the border with Somalia and banned flights there. Moi said his decision was prompted by an increase in crime, which he blames on refugees and on weapons smuggled in from Kenya's war-ravaged and ungoverned northeastern neighbor. Moi's decision may eventually have an impact on crime, but its effect on the regional khat industry was immediate.

Traders, airline operators and customs officials say that before the ban around 200 burlap bags of khat — somewhere between seven and 10 tons — were flown to Somalia every day. At around $400 a bag the daily trade was worth $80,000, or $29 million a year — not one of Kenya's major earners but significant nevertheless. Although the air trade has collapsed, Kenya-based dealers are still managing to smuggle some khat into Somalia overland. But the big winners are Ethiopian traders who are using the ban to increase their market share in Somalia. "The khat trade is unstoppable," says Paul Goldsmith, a consultant to the U.N. on environmental and economic issues. "It's totally market-driven."

The United Nations International Drug Control Program monitors the use of Catha edulis, as the plant is scientifically known, but few countries have bothered to ban it. The drug's psychoactive ingredients are cathinone — similar to a mild amphetamine — and the milder cathine. "The effects usually start after a few hours of chewing," says Raychad Abdool, the Nairobi-based drug demand reduction adviser at the U.N.D.C.P. "It stimulates you, decreases appetite and relieves fatigue."

Traditionally, the bitter leaf was chewed socially by older men. "It's always been a social glue, bringing people together," says Goldsmith. But over the past decade or so, some users have begun chewing for up to 12 hours a day, which can cost as much as $20 or more. Women and teenagers have also started using it. Researchers in Somalia attribute the trend to people seeking a way to cope with the country's civil war and social breakdown, and to local warlords using khat to pay their militias. In other places, like Djibouti, it has simply become fashionable to chew.

The increased demand means land once used to grow staples like maize is now given over to the more lucrative cash crop: farmers can make up to $300 a month per acre. In addition, some users are so hooked on khat they have no money to buy food for their families. Mohammed Jama Guled, director of Tawakal Airlines, which flew daily to Somalia before the ban, concedes that overuse is causing problems but says khat in moderation is part of the region's Islamic tradition: "It's just like having a meal in Italy without wine — impossible."

Ethiopian traders moving into the Somali market since the ban fly khat to Djibouti or northern Somalia and then truck it south to Mogadishu and other cities. Luckily for the Somali khat connoisseurs who dismiss the less tasty and effective Ethiopian variety as "vegetable," some Kenyan khat still gets through, trucked into southern Somalia at night using remote tracks. Whenever they meet one of the notorious gangs of bandits known as shifta which roam the Kenya-Somali border area the traders bribe their way out. The price? A couple of bags of khat.