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New Study Puts Khat On the Spot September 19, 2005 - allafrica.com
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has put miraa (khat) under critical review to see whether it can be categorised as a harmful drug.
A preliminary report by an expert committee in the 2004 International Narcotics Control Board concluded that miraa was harmful to humans, but added that further assessment was required before concrete measures could be taken to regulate the drug.
The WHO Experts Committee (Department of Mental Health and Substance Dependence) worked on the UN-sponsored report. It recommended that miraa consumption was associated with health risks with detrimental social consequences, since continued chewing led to addiction.
The main function of the WHO Programme for International Drug Monitoring is to provide early warnings of drug-related problems, including drug abuse, dependence and withdrawal syndrome.
In the case of miraa, the WHO experts reported cases of poisoning and paranoia in those addicted to the drug and women were particularly affected resulting in the low birth weight of babies.
Other acute and chronic effects of the drug include reduced sperm count, increased risk of heart diseases and liver problems. In some cases, portions of tissues die out because blood supply has been cut off. Regular consumption of miraa was also linked to a variety of social and economic problems affecting consumers and their families.
Miraa is a cash crop for many families in Meru, Isiolo, Marsabit, Chyulu Hills, Turkana and West Pokot, who earn their living from trading in the crop.
"If you ban this crop, the trade will die or it will be continued clandestinely somewhere else," a trader in Eastleigh, Yasini Mohammed, said.
Samuel Njuru of the Central Bureau of Statistics said the department had not given the crop a statistical code. "Miraa is regarded as a drug. It has no code and so it is difficult to find statistical data," he said.
Despite its harmful side effects, miraa is only prohibited in a few countries.
According to the National Agency for the Campaign against Drug Abuse (Nacada), the review could put miraa, a leafy stimulant also known as khat, in the same class with tobacco.
But Health ministry officials and local researchers say they are not convinced that there is enough evidence for such a policy on miraa.
Dr Josephat Mbuva of the ministry's Pharmacy department says the Government had not received any authoritative medical review that it could use to outlaw miraa.
"We cannot wake up and act... there are steps to be followed before formulating a policy on its control," Dr Mbuva said.
At the University of Nairobi's Faculty of Pharmacy, Prof Isaac Kibwage said research was being carried out on the effects of miraa consumption.
He said: "Miraa chewing is a form of drug abuse. When it is chewed, one gets addicted to it and to support the addiction, some indulge in petty crimes to raise money to buy it."
It is a drug which needs to be regulated, but due to lack of cooperation between key players and policy makers, dealers and consumers will continue with the trade, Prof Kibwage adds.
The faculty is also studying a plant with properties similar to miraa that grows in Embu, Eastern Province. It is locally known as muguka or Embu miraa.
People chew miraa for many reasons. Some say it helps them socialise and relax. Others claim it increases their sexual drive.
Whatever the reasons, miraa is big business. Many people rely on it for income - from farmers to traders and dealers who export the drug to neighbouring countries, mainly in the Horn of Africa, and as far as Yemen. Some miraa is exported to London.
A 60-year-old refugee, Yasini Naji Mohamed, who has a bullet lodged in his upper left chest and a broken knee, told the Nation that he chews miraa because the stimulant gives him peace of mind.
"When I chew it, I relax and forget all my problems... I then sleep," he said.
Nacada's national coordinator Joseph Kaguthi said that although chewing miraa was a cultural practice, it had negative impacts on families.
He also said that efforts were being made by the United Nations Drug Control Programme to have miraa declared a psychotropic drug (one that affects the mind).
"For it contains cathine and cathimone which have been assessed by the WHO as having a central stimulating action similar to amphetamine, it is harmful to man's sexual power and teeth may fall off as the gum becomes weak and brownish," Kaguthi said.
He gave an example of Mbeere District where many young boys had absconded school to work in miraa farms and some were trading in the crop.
"Though miraa consumption is associated with health risks and detrimental social consequences, regrettably, it is only prohibited in some countries such as Tanzania, Eritrea and the United States of America," he said.
Mr Kaguthi wants Kenya to follow the footsteps of Tanzania by introducing legislation to regulate the production, marketing and consumption of the product.
He adds, however, that such legal measures should be handled with caution since the miraa trade had a major impact on some local regional economies.
Interested parties have persistently argued that the trade was a source of income for their families.
Producers, he said, had organised themselves into trading associations, which were interested in maximising their gains from miraa and promoting its consumption.
Consumers, it has been argued in some quarters, are slack at work place, due to absenteeism and and often neglect their families.
Kaguthi maintained that Nacada's position was that children should be stopped from consuming, distributing and producing not only miraa but other substances such as tobacco.
Nacada was willing to help researchers and medical practitioners make public the findings of their studies on miraa.
Religious organisations should also join the campaign to stop the youth from consuming miraa and other harmful drugs.
The International Narcotics Control Board president Hamid Ghodse said that the war on illegal drugs could not succeed if issues of supply and demand were not tackled.
"Drugs are manufactured, trafficked and sold on the illicit market by one group of people; the drugs are bought and consumed by others.
"The demand for drugs stimulates the supply; the availability of drugs, in turn, creates demand, as more people become dependent on the drugs.
The report says that there are no quick fixes to reduce demand. Sustained preventive intervention is required to do that. It is essential to develop comprehensive strategies, combining action to reduce both supply and demand, it says.