PERTH’S Somali-Australian community has played a key role in new research on the health impacts of khat (Catha edulis) leaves, chewed for their amphetamine-like stimulant effects.
University of Queensland Associate Professor Heather Douglas, one of the authors behind ‘The health impacts of khat: a qualitative study among Somali-Australians’, said her interest stemmed from a newspaper article.
“A Somali woman was discussing her experiences of domestic violence which she said resulted from her husband’s use of khat,” Professor Douglas said.
“I have researched domestic violence matters in the past and decided to follow this up.”
Originally, Perth wasn’t chosen for the study but, after speaking to Somali focus groups in Melbourne and Brisbane, Professor Douglas discovered several of them were importing khat from WA where there are many trees in private backyards.
Khat has a varying legal status across Australia—in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania people can get a licence to import up to 5kg a month for personal use.
In WA, it is legal to grow but illegal to harvest. In 2009, a Thornlie couple was charged with drug dealing after police seized more than 32kg of khat leaves at their home.
It contains the alkaloids cathine, norephedrine and cathinone (the principal psychoactive component), which are all structurally related to amphetamine.
Nineteen focus groups in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane were interviewed for Professor Douglas’ research.
“I knew little about khat when I began so there were many surprises,” she said. “We found women are using khat in increasing numbers and that khat is used very little beyond Horn of Africa communities.
“I was also surprised that much of the khat used in Australia is imported from Ethiopia.”
A Somali man from Perth, whose identity is confidential according to the study’s ethics process, gave his thoughts in the paper: “It’s a very major source of madness, of craziness. People are all right if they stop it, they can come back all right… but when you overuse it, and overuse it, that’s when you come to this situation.”
Former Ethnic Communities Council of WA president Suresh Rajan, who contributed to the University of Queensland study, believes khat caused harm to Somali communities and anything done to restrict access would be a positive.
“While many of those who use khat believe it helps them to become more alert and less tired, others say they can’t concentrate and often lose points for speeding,” she said.
Professor Douglas said she was now hoping to do a follow-up study on how khat affects driving.