By Logan Cochrane and Davin O’Regan

Khat, a small flowering bush native to the Horn of Africa, is an illegal drug in most countries in Europe, Asia, and North America. It has also become Ethiopia’s largest export after coffee, valued at nearly 300 million USD in recent years (Anderson, Beckerleg, Hailu, & Klein, 2007; Csete, 2014; Zenebe, 2014). In fact, khat production has been growing steadily in Ethiopia. Over the last 15 years the amount of land devoted to khat has risen 160 percent. The total amount produced has grown even faster, rising by 246 percent, amounting to hundreds of millions of kilograms of khat annually. From just a few thousand hectares in the 1950s, khat is now grown on one quarter million hectares of land in Ethiopia by millions of farmers (Gebissa, 2008). Ethiopia is the leading producer of khat globally.

While Ethiopia’s khat trade continues to expand, a growing number of countries around the world are criminalizing its sale and consumption. At least two dozen countries have listed khat as a controlled substance. The Netherlands banned khat in 2013. In 2014, both China and the United Kingdom added khat to their list of controlled psychotropic substances (INCB, 2015). French, German, and Norwegian authorities each seized over a dozen tons of khat in 2013 (INCB, 2015). Since 2005, federal and state authorities in the United States have arrested and prosecuted dozens of individuals for trafficking khat. At a single Canadian airport, Toronto’s Pearson International, authorities report making almost daily confiscations of khat (Shephard, 2012).

Ethiopian law neither explicitly allows nor prohibits the cultivation, consumption, or sale of khat (Dessie, 2013). Yet the national economy, and in particular specific regional economies, is becoming more and more dependent upon the production and trade of an increasingly criminalized substance.

This commentary will not argue for or against khat’s legality nor will it examine the health implications of khat use. Rather, we focus upon the potential consequences of the rising prominence of khat in Ethiopia’s economy and its potential political and socioeconomic implications in Ethiopia. This commentary is divided into three parts. First, drawing primarily on Ethiopian government data complemented by previous independent surveys of khat consumption, we examine trends in production and consumption of khat in Ethiopia over the last 15 years. We then use seizure data from customs and law enforcement institutions in major importing countries in Europe and the United States to demonstrate the significant changes to policies and perceptions of khat. Lastly, we combine a review of research on the political and socioeconomic effects of the production and export of other forms of illicit narcotics to analyses of contemporary Ethiopian political dynamics to reflect on the challenges and dilemmas that the country faces as the khat trade both booms and increasingly becomes criminalized.         

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