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Health fears over khat drug use 5 May, 2005 bbc.co.uk
Concern has been raised from within the Somali community in south Wales about the long-term health risks from the excessive use of the legal drug, khat.
Chewing khat leaves is popular, particularly among Somali men.
But some members of the community have expressed fears over the excessive use of the drug by younger men.
The Home Office is currently conducting research on khat - which is illegal in the USA, Canada, Ireland, Norway and Sweden.
Khat is a stimulant, producing a high when chewed, but its use has been linked to long-term health issues such as heart problems and mental illness.
Around seven tonnes of khat leaves, which is an evergreen shrub which grows in mountainous areas across Africa, is estimated to be imported into the UK each week from Ethiopia, Yemen and Kenya.
It can be bought for around ?3 a bunch in parts of Cardiff.
The main active ingredient of khat is cathinone, a chemical which is similar to amphetamine.
When cathinone is broken down in the body, it produces chemicals including cathine and norephedrine, which have a similar structure to amphetamines and adrenaline.
The Somali community in Cardiff is one of the largest in the UK. Several studies have been carried out in the city about khat's long-term effects.
In one report from 2002, researchers concluded that chewing khat put users at risk of significant medical and mental health problems.
Psychiatrists Dr Mansfield Mela and Dr Andrew McBride looked at 61 Somalis aged between 18 and 70.
Almost three-quarters (72%) reported using khat at some time in their lives and almost half (46%) said that they had used it in the past week, although 53% said they disapproved of chewing khat.
Of those surveyed, 13% said they chewed khat seven days a week and 19% described themselves as dependent.
The khat users reported significant health problems associated with their habit. These included sleep problems, weight loss, appetite loss, mood swings, irritability, paranoid ideas, nightmares and hallucinations.
Abdirkarim Adan, director of the Somali Progressive Association in Cardiff, said that there was concern over the amount of khat being chewed by some members of the community.
He said that more education was needed about the drug, but was not in favour of it being made illegal.
"I chew khat on the weekends with my friends," he said.
"It is a cultural and social thing, a bit like going down the pub.
"And it is like anything - if you use too much then there are going to be problems. It's the same as alcohol - if you abuse it then you are going to get problems.
"There is a mixed view on the problem of khat - a lot of people I know have given it up because of the health risks associated with it.
"It keeps people awake so then they can't get up for work the next day - and so of course that has a big effect."
He said that use of the plant was growing in the community.
"I do think that people are doing it a lot more which is a problem - but how can you guard against excessive use? That is the crux of the issue," he said.
"When people become addicted - when all they want to do is chew it on the weekends and then in their break times.
"I think there needs to be a lot more education and guidelines about khat and how much is safe," he added.
Abdi Jama, a youth worker from Newport, said that he had seen a rise in use among younger men.
"It is a problem, lots of the teenage boys are taking it up and it has a real effect on them - it is worrying," he said.
Many of the women in the community are against the tradition of chewing khat because of the adverse effect it has on the home and family life and because of religious reasons - Islam says that you cannot take anything that dulls the mind.