Newsbrief: "Khat Madness" in Uganda 4/9/04

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Khat is driving people crazy in Uganda, but it is prohibitionists rather than users of the mild stimulant who are in the throes of delirium, if a recent report from the Ugandan newspaper New Vision is to be believed. Khat use is common throughout the Horn of Africa, where the leaves of the shrub have been chewed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It is commonly described as producing an effect similar to drinking several cups of coffee or coca tea.

While khat, referred to locally as mairungi, is legal in Uganda, efforts have been underway since at least 1999 to ban its use, and, New Vision reported, a bill that would do just that is again before the Ugandan parliament. The New Vision article is part of that effort.

While khat consumers believe the plant is harmless, they are wrong, the paper asserted, citing Michael Were, the Anti-Narcotics director for the Uganda Police Force. "Mairungi is a narcotic because it has the ingredients of a narcotic drug," Were explained. [Editor's Note: Actually, the ingredients of a narcotic drug are opiates, either synthetic or from the opium poppy.]

The paper then turned to Simon Nantamu, a Makerere University psychologist, who issued a dire warning. "There is no doubt that mairungi, like any other narcotic, can cause mental illness," he said. Nantumu was especially concerned about taxi drivers on khat. "There is a big problem of mairungi in the country especially among taxi drivers. The cause may be their hectic routine, because their work is too stressful. They take mairungi in an attempt to break the monotony of their work life, and alter their energy levels. That is why there are many accidents," he offered.

"Another reason they take mairungi is because it is not detectable on breath in case of an accident. The problem is that it is addictive and those who take it remain hooked onto the drug long after they quit their professions," he explained.

Despite the specter of khat-crazed taxi drivers, the stuff is popular and used openly, policeman Were complained. "Mairungi is being consumed allover the country in the open. It is consumed openly in our slums and other urban areas. It is most common in places like local video clubs where it is even sold openly."

Of course, there is a reason for that, Were conceded. "Mairungi is not illegal in Uganda and that is why these people chew and trade in it freely." But the days of legal khat are numbered, he warned. "Government is coming up with a bill which has already been presented to Parliament, and deals with narcotics and psychotropic substances. When it is out, it will pave the way for the arrest of these mairungi consumers," says Were.

Besides causing taxi madness and general dementia, added Were's colleague Moses Adipa, khat is a gateway drug. "Mairungi is a stepping stone for harder drugs," he said. "When these people reach a certain point they feel they need something stronger and they take on to marijuana or heroin."

Not content to publish the mouthings of alarmist police and mental health workers, New Vision itself joined the battle, describing the plant as "cunning, baffling, and powerful," as well as being a "subtle crude, brain-wrecking substance."

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