WASHINGTON - Khat is a flowering tree native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Chewing khat leaves for stimulation and even medicinal purposes has been a social custom in those parts of the world for hundreds of years, and migration has brought it to the West. A number of western countries have outlawed khat because of its addictive substances, and Britain's decision to join that list has caused concern among khat growers and dealers in Kenya, whose livelihood depends on khat exports.
Joseph Mbiti grows khat, or miraa, as it is known here, at his farm in Meru, central Kenya. Even though the British ban is a little more than two months old, he said he already is feeling the consequences.
"I am a farmer and I depend on khat for my livelihood. Since the ban in Britain took effect, I haven't been able to pay our children's school fees. I don't know what I am going to do. There is still a balance remaining, which we haven't paid," said Mbiti.
The ban has affected others involved in the business of producing and selling khat leaves.
"We used to take 30 pickups with miraa to Nairobi, but now we only have five pickups, meaning more than 20 drivers are jobless and many of the pickups are now just parked here," said a local driver.
Britain's ban on khat has created a glut in local markets, driving down the prices and employment opportunities.
“Many young men who used to package khat in Meru and at the airport are now jobless. The price of khat leaves has gone down drastically because all the khat that was to go to Britain is now sold locally. We are making huge losses," said a trader.
Britain's demand for khat is driven by its large ethnic Somali community. Users say chewing the leaves makes them feel happier, more alert, and more energetic. Some even say it is helpful in fighting gastric ulcers and obesity.
Opponents say longtime use of khat can damage the brain and lead to addiction that causes social problems, similar to those caused by alcoholism and drug abuse. The World Health Organization has classified khat as a drug of abuse because it can produce mild-to-moderate psychological dependence. Kenyans and others living in countries where khat is legal disagree.
"The fact that they are saying some part of it contains some elements that are banned in the United Kingdom does not mean that the whole plant or the whole miraa is a negative impact to the entire society in the U.K.," said a Nairobi resident.
The ban has caused heated debate in Britain, where critics say it will spark a lucrative illegal trade but supporters say it will help prevent Britain from becoming a hub for the illegal trade to countries where khat is banned. Some Kenyans fear losing a legal job in the khat trade could drive many people to crime.
"Khat helps me educate my children and provide food for my family. I depend on it. This is why I am not involved in crime," said one Kenyan farmer.
Khat is banned in most European countries and in the United States and Canada.