High as a Khat

There are more than 22 million people living in the Gulf nation of Yemen. The per capita GDP of the country is less than $2,500, placing it toward the bottom of the list of nations ranked by that measure of wealth. Climate-wise, Yemen doesn’t have a lot of water — many experts believe that its most populous region could run out of water within a decade or two. The vast majority of that water — 90% — fuels the nation’s agricultural industry. But the farmers aren’t growing fruits or vegetables. They’re growing something called khat. It’s a mild, amphetamine-like drug.

Khat contains a chemical called cathinone, a stimulant which is released when the leaves are chewed. Using khat, per Wikipedia, “induces mild euphoria and excitement, similar to that conferred by strong coffee” and “individuals become very talkative under the influence of the plant.” It’s mildly addictive — probably less so than alcohol — and is legal in Yemen and many other Arab nations. (Cathinone is not legal in the United States, Canada, and much of Europe. The UK added it to its list of controlled substances earlier this year.) As drugs go, it’s probably not nearly as harmful as many of the others out there. But as crops go, it’s one of the least useful.

And that’s where the problem lies.

Khat is a focal point of social interaction in Yemen, and, per a World Health Organization (WHO) report, an estimated 90% of adult Yemeni men chew it multiple times each day. Perhaps as much as 50% of adult women also are chewers, although not daily, and WHO further notes that as many as 15% of children use it as well. The concern isn’t an addiction-addled society, though; it’s the water. As of 2007, per a BBC report, 40% of the nation’s water goes to growing khat, a crop which requires more water than those which provide food. A TIME article from 2009 concluded that “quitting khat would double the amount of household water available.”

Making matters worse, khat growing is a great business — TIME put the cost of a daily supply of khat at $5, making khat growing one of the few ways to make a good living in the region. Many spend more money on khat than they do food. So farmers are growing khat at increasing rates — and at the opportunity cost of growing food. WHO explains:

Khat also distorts an already fragile economy with farmers ripping out fruit trees and coffee plants to replace them with the more lucrative crop. Between 1970 and 2000, the area devoted to khat cultivation ballooned from 8000 to 103,000 hectares in Yemen. Nearly 60% of the land cultivated for cash crops is devoted to khat growing.

To date, the Yemeni government hasn’t had a good solution to slow the trend. They’ve placed a 20% tax on its retail price in 2005, but given that the stats above are from after, the tax has been ineffective.

Bonus Fact: “Khat” can also be spelled “qat” and is a legal Scrabble word. It’s one of the few that have a q but no u, and is worth 12 points.

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