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Notes on Legal Status of Khat in South Africa
Reason to Celebrate
by Manton Hirst
Sep 2004
Note: In 1994 the Curator of Anthropology at the Amathole Museum, King William's Town (Eastern Cape, South Africa), Manton Hirst, PhD was one of four successful applicants of more than twenty who were awarded a research grant by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in association with the South African Department of Environmental Affairs for a research project dealing with the utilization of the hitherto unstudied medicinal tree Catha edulis by Xhosa farm tenants in Bolo, Stutterheim district. The research project, which started during 1995, resulted in three publications (Hirst 1997, Hirst 2002, Hirst 2003). Hirst was the first researcher in South Africa to bring to the attention of the scientific community, which had long been aware of the existence of Catha edulis as a wild tree growing in parts of the Eastern Cape, the longstanding use of the fresh material among the Nguni (and before them the Khoisan) for its stimulant and medicinal effects.

After more than five years hassling with the authorities, principally the South African Narcotics Bureau (SANAB), it is gratifying to be able to report that Catha edulis is now a protected indigenous tree in South Africa 4.

A representative of SANAB peremptorily told me a few years ago that every last wild Catha edulis shrub and tree growing on the farmlands of the Eastern Cape must be rooted out and destroyed (naturally these people are quite ignorant of the fact that Catha edulis is tenacious and a very difficult tree to even burn down). But the future of Catha edulis as a medicinal and entheogen is now assured. In fact, I predict new tourist packages linked to qat showing up in the near future.

The plant, once feared as a source of "illegal stimulants" is now being recognized as the tea-like plant that it is. Just over a year ago, I bumped into police officers from the rural area where I have conducted research on qat and where a lot of it grows. They were both Xhosa gentlemen. Using the Xhosa term for qat, I asked one of them how the qat was at Sweetlands, a farm by that name where a lot of good qat grows. He replied that is was better on the Quanti River side. With GREAT surprise, I remarked to him that if he knew that, he must be chewing qat himself, and he admitted that he sometimes did. "But isn't that illegal?" I exclaimed with some dismay and he replied that scientists from the police forensic lab in Pretoria had come down to test the material and that the drug content was extremely low. So, I said to the cop, I can go down to the farmlands now and pick as much as I want and you guys can't do anything to me? He replied that I could truly do that, as long as I had the farmer's permission to pick on his property.

As with all black market amphetamines, law enforcement certainly acts to close down meth-cathinone labs and seize supplies and arrest dealers; however, there is currently, and has been for a few years, continued sale of fresh qat in Eastern Cape towns and cities as well as in the major centres of the country, like Johannesburg and Cape Town, not to mention qat tea which is a new herbal product with a big commercial future, both in SA and world-wide.

As previously reported by me (Hirst 2003), some qat dealers (mostly illegal Somalian immigrants) were arrested, but up to now there have been no convictions in these cases in SA (apparently, the listing of cathinone as an illegal substance, even in the US, has been difficult to apply in practice). We have the DEA to thank for the listing of cathinone as a controlled substance -- but it is well known that they just shoot from the hip at anything that is even remotely psychoactive, so simply knowing it is controlled doesn't mean much about its actual health risks.

Unfortunately, I know of no Medicine Council/Drug Enforcement websites dealing with Catha edulis. The problem is that Catha edulis is generally a whole bunch of fresh leaves and shoots, and cathinone is a white powder with an identifiable benzene ring - and when the Public Prosecutor looks at the evidence there are just these green leaves that contain a whole lot of stuff apart from, and in addition to, cathinone (Hirst 1997, Hirst 2002). To enforce the law against qat it would be necessary to ban qat specifically as Catha edulis, in the same way as Cannabis, and specify one is not allowed to possess or use the leaves, etc. And as everyone knows, in accordance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), one cannot ban an indigenous tree - because banning it will bring about its unprecedented destruction.

We have the requisite knowledge to refine cathinone (under government license) for medical use; but at this stage our considered conclusion is that the fresh material is probably the best for human use (with its absolutely fresh chemistry - the material rapidly loses its efficacy over a day or two after picking). The fresh material, simply because there is a physical limit to how much of it one can chew and suck before one's mouth becomes sore and lacerated, places limits on consumption and over-indulgence. Fresh qat is not tolerance inducing (see Kennedy et al. 1987 cited on my list of references in my publications, also Krikorian 1984) and there is the unresearched possibility that it could substitute for more harmful addictions such as alcohol or opiate use.

As current archaeological research in SA dates qat use to around the 3rd century BC (no currently published references), it is becoming clearer that we should not be surrendering a long historical relationship with this medicinal plant just to satisfy the overzealous Drug Enforcement Administration trying to push a certain American bourgeois sensibility onto the rest of the world.

As a side note, over the last few years, in thinking about why qat has been so demonized by certain anti-drug politicians, I have tried hard to identify all problems associated with the use of fresh qat. It seems to be a lot like Cannabis, in the sense that one doesn't run into users at the local mental hospital needing a 'fix' (I have qualifications in clinical psychology and occasionally do therapeutic work at the mental hospital, so I know something about this). One does, sometimes, bump into users waiting outside the local courthouse when they have been busted for possession.

The reclassification of Catha edulis to be a protected species instead of slated for eradication is certainly cause to celebrate!

References #
  1. Hirst MM. (1997) 'The Utilization of Catha edulis in the Household Economy of the Bolo Reserve, Eastern Cape.' Journal of Contemporary African Studies 15:1:119-143.
  2. Hirst MM. (2003) 'Kat, the Law and the Somalian Who Got Away.' PlantLife 28: 11-12.
  3. Hirst M. (2002) Catha Edulis And Its Utilization: Local Xhosa Knowledge In The Eastern Cape, South Africa. Eleusis, December 2003.
  4. # South Africa Department of Water Affairs and Forestry: Protected Tree Species: Catha edulis : Bushman's Tea : Boesmanstee (A), Mohlatse (NS), Igqwaka (X), Umhlwazi (Z) : National Tree Number 404.
  5. # Brenneisen et al. khat research on PubMed.