Dramatic warning about khat misuse



By Jane Elliott
BBC News Online health reporter

Mahamed Hussien regularly chews khat, a mild stimulant popular with the Somali and Yemeni population.

He says the drug, legal in the UK, is an important part of the cultural life of his community, but he is also worried about the effect it is having on some people - particularly the young.

Many in the health community want to see the drug banned because of links with mental health problems.

FACTS ABOUT KHAT

There are two main types of khat - mirra and hereri

Mirra is grown mainly in Kenya

Hereri comes from Ethiopia

A bundle of khat costs about £3 in Britain

Khat is illegal in the US and a bundle there sells for between $50 (£28) and $80

It was recently reviewed by the Home Office, who decided against a ban.

Mahamed does not want to see the drug banned but does think people should be warned of the dangers caused by excessive use.

Now organisers of a play called Khat - Out of Sight, Out of Mind, to be performed at Oxford House in Bethnal Green, London, this month in both Somali and English, hope to educate users about the potential problems.

Khat is a stimulant, producing a high when chewed.

The main active ingredient is cathinone, which, when broken down in the body, produces chemicals which resemble both amphetamine and the "fight or flight" hormone adrenaline, which readies the body to take dramatic action in times of crisis.

'Psychotic'

Long-term use been linked to mental illness and heart problems.

Dr Eleni Palazidou, a doctor specialising in mental health with a special interest in psychopharmacology, based at the Royal London Hospital, St Clements, east London, said the links with mental health problems were worrying experts.

"It is associated with different psychological problems," she said.

"When people are using they can become elated and be restless and energetic. They can't sleep and they don't feel like eating.

Alcohol and cigarettes are expensive because they are harmful so why is the government not taking the same measure with khat?

Ayan Mahamoud

"People can become psychotic and hear voices and become paranoid.

"After using people can have the opposite effect they can become tired and depressed and there have been cases of suicides."

Dr Palazidou said raising awareness of the problems without seeming to lecture people was vital and she hoped this was what the play's subtle message would do.

Oxford House Somali art co-ordinator Ayan Mahamoud agreed.

She hopes the play will attract khat users but also a much wider constituency.

She told the BBC News website that the play focused on the life of a user, his family and friends.

The user's children are so embarrassed by their father's repeated absences that they tell their school he is dead. The play then focuses on how the family reacts to this.

Tax

Ayan says she wants to see the drug banned, and says even a tax would restrict use.

"If you raise a tax on it the use will not be that widespread because people cannot afford it," she said.

"Alcohol and cigarettes are expensive because they are harmful so why is the government not taking the same measure with khat?"

Mr Hussien would also like to see a tax levied on the popular leaf, which currently costs just £3 a day to fund a habit.

"I have not had any health problems myself, I do not use it everyday, but it is really a big problem if you abuse it.

"Some people can control their use, I do not use every day. But others, mainly the teenagers, do use it too much. If they put a tax on khat that would help because it would become too expensive.

"It could be controlled and not banned because it is an important part of our social life."

(c) BBC MMVI