Opinion: Dutch khat ban smacks of racism

khat, qat
The Dutch government recently announced that it will ban the use of khat, a narcotic leaf widely chewed in the Horn of Africa and Yemen.

I’ve written about khat before. I’ve spent four months in Ethiopia, especially Harar, a city in the eastern part of the country where chewing khat (pronounced “chat” in the local languages) is part of many people’s daily lives. It’s a mild drug that makes most people more relaxed, mildly euphoric, and talkative. It also helps concentration and is popular among university students.

Of course there are side effects. Short-term effects include sleeplessness, constipation, and for some people a listlessness that keeps them from achieving their potential. Long-term use can lead to mental instability and heart trouble. I met one western researcher in Harar who had been there two years. He’d stopped using khat after the first few months because he was afraid of the long-term effects. If I lived in Harar that long I’d stop chewing khat for that very reason.

So the Dutch government seems to have a good reason to ban khat. Or does it? This is a country where marijuana, hash, herbal ecstasy, and psychedelic truffles are all legal. And if we’re talking about long-term health effects, we need to throw in alcohol and tobacco too.

So what’s different about khat? It’s almost exclusively used by the Dutch Somali community, numbering about 25,000 people. According to the BBC, “a Dutch government report cited noise, litter and the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat as some of the reasons for outlawing the drug.”

Drunks aren’t noisy? Cigarette smokers never litter? The last reason is the most telling: “the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat.” In other words, black men. In Europe, khat is a black drug, little understood and rarely used by the white population. This ignorance and the fear it generates are the real reasons khat is being banned.

While there are some valid health and social reasons for banning this narcotic plant, they also apply to the narcotic plants white people like to use. But we can’t expect white people in The Netherlands to give up those, can we?

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Belgian chocolate: so good you can snort it

Belgian chocolate
Back in grade school, my friends and I used to eat Smarties, those little sugar tablets that were so popular back then. Some of us, wanting to show off, used to pound them up and snort them. There was no better sugar rush. We used to call them “Snorties”.

Well, we should have copyrighted it, because now in Belgium they’re snorting chocolate. Not just any chocolate, but gourmet Belgian chocolate. I discovered this at the appropriately named The Chocolate Line in Antwerp. The “applicator” is a plastic catapult that launches little piles of powdered chocolate into both your nostrils. To see a closeup of the nostril catapult, check out the gallery. There are lots of photos of more traditional chocolate and chocolate making too.

So how does it compare to Snorties Smarties? Not nearly as granular, easier on the nostrils, and a better aftertaste, although I didn’t taste the raspberry flavor that was supposed to be mixed with the chocolate. Good for clearing the sinuses too.

Belgium is justly famous for its chocolate. It has some of the best chocolatiers in the world and many of them live in Antwerp. The Chocolate Line is one of the most famous. It’s located at the elegant Paleis op de Meir, a palace that’s now converted into a museum, cafe, and chocolatier workshop. Here you can see elegant chocolate creations being made.

Chocolatiers dot the city. I also visited Günther Watté, which doubles as a cafe. After sipping a delicately flavored cup of Jamaica Blue Mountain with the traditional piece of chocolate on the side, I explored their wide selection for something to bring home. For other recommendations, see the well-researched Amsterdam Tourist Guide’s Belgian chocolate page.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Antwerp: Belgium’s historic and modern port!

This trip was partially funded by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Belgian chocolate

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Dutch government to ban skunk weed

skunk weed, joint, marijuanaThe Dutch government is planning on reclassifying skunk weed as a hard drug, the BBC reports.

All marijuana with more than 15% THC content will have to be removed from the country’s coffee shops. The new rule will go into force next year and will affect about 80% of the pot sold in coffee shops.

The Dutch government has already announced plans to ban drug tourism by requiring customers to prove residency in The Netherlands before being allowed to buy marijuana. That plan will also go into effect next year, assuming it actually becomes law. Drug tourism makes an awful lot of money for an awful lot of people in The Netherlands, so the law is sure to meet some strong opposition.

But don’t worry, stoners, there are still places where you can get all bleary eyed and chow down on donuts. In Spain it’s legal to grow a small number of pot plants for personal use, and Portugal, which has the most liberal drug laws in Europe.

So if you’re headed to Holland next year, instead of lighting up, check out these other fun things to do in The Netherlands.

Drugs and travel don’t mix (in most places)


Flying out of Madrid’s Barajas airport last week I spotted this curious poster. Sorry for the crappy photo, but there was a light right in front of it. The poster asks, “Do you seriously believe that being around drugs overseas would be fun?”

The message is one to think about. Most recreational drugs are illegal in most places, and going to jail isn’t fun anywhere, yet I have to wonder about the subtext of this poster. It seems to be saying, “Stay away from drugs, son, or scary dark people with bad teeth will beat you up, steal your right shoe, and use you like a woman.”

In reality, the main dangers of using drugs overseas are being ripped off by the dealer or getting framed. This is especially common in Morocco and India, where a friendly guy will offer you drugs and when you buy them, call the cops on you. He and the cops will then take you for everything you got, and you better hope you’re not a woman in this situation.

So kids, be sensible. Take the legal drugs. Drink real ale in England. Smoke dope in The Netherlands. Chew qat in Ethiopia and Somaliland. Drink coffee and smoke tobacco just about anywhere. If it’s legal, it couldn’t be bad for you!

Qat culture in Harar: East Africa’s favorite legal high

qat, Qat, qat chewing, qat market, Ethiopia, khat, Khat
Every afternoon in Harar, you see men walking along carrying plastic bags filled with leaves. Hararis aren’t big fans of salads; they’re chewing these leaves for a completely different reason. It gets them high.

Qat (pronounced “chat” in Harari, Amharic, and Somali) is a narcotic leaf from a fast-growing bush found all over the Horn of Africa and Yemen. It’s legal and hugely popular in this region.
In Harari culture it’s mostly the men who chew, although some women do as well. Many people have a regular birtcha (qat-chewing session) where they meet most afternoons to socialize and work.

I’m not going to be coy like some travel writers and talk about drugs in foreign countries while pretending I haven’t used them. When I’m in Harar I chew qat regularly. I attend a birtcha at the home of a man who works in one of the government bureaus. Birtchas usually attract people who have similar jobs, political views, or who are friends from childhood. My birtcha includes dictionary writers, government workers, and a public prosecutor. A birtcha gives people a chance to while away the afternoon in conversation.

Visitors to Harar will be invited to several birtchas. Going to them allows you to see the inside of Harari homes and meet people from all walks of life. I’ve been to birthcas in more than a dozen homes.

%Gallery-120576%When I mentioned I was writing this article, my birtcha got into a debate over whether qat is a drug or not. Some said that because it’s legal it’s not a drug, similar to some Americans I’ve known who insist alcohol and caffeine aren’t drugs. I don’t agree. Qat is a drug like alcohol, caffeine, or marijuana. Qat is a mild drug, though. Chewing a large bundle has less of an effect on my mind than three pints of beer.

In Eating the Flowers of Paradise, Kevin Rushby describes having wild psychotic trips from some of the qat he chewed. Perhaps he chewed more or was more susceptible, but I’ve had nothing like the results he had. The effects on me, like most people, are slow in coming. You usually don’t feel anything for almost an hour, although by this time you’ve been having a nice conversation with friends in a traditional Harari home and feel relaxed anyway. Then you notice a deeper relaxation, mingled with a feeling of goodwill that can become euphoric if you chew enough. Food tastes better, cigarettes taste sweet (or so I’m told) and at least for me colors appear more vibrant.

The best effect of qat is that you end up in long, enthusiastic conversations that can last for hours. Unlike with booze or pot, you’ll actually remember these conversations later! After a time many people quieten down and start to work. Qat helps concentration and often people in a birtcha drop out of the conversation one by one and start writing or working on their laptops. Others return to their offices. Some students use it to help them study for exams. Manual laborers say it’s good for physical work too.

Like all substances, qat has side effects. Chewing too much can lead to sleeplessness and constipation. Long-term use can also lead to mental instability. In qat-chewing regions you’ll always see a few older guys with ragged clothes and wild eyes wandering the streets collecting discarded qat leaves that people have dropped onto the ground. Another downside is that farmers are growing qat instead of food. Most crops can only be harvested once or twice a year. A field of qat plants can be harvested every day by taking shoots from a few plants one day and different ones the next. Farmers like having the constant source of income but its lowering the region’s food production, a really bad idea in a country that sees periodic droughts.

All in all, I think the social effects of qat in Ethiopia are no worse than alcohol in Western countries. The number of qat addicts in Ethiopia’s streets is no greater than the number of winos on Western streets. Qat is a social lubricant that has bad effects for those who use it too much, but for the casual user it’s harmless.

I’m a bit worried about this article. It’s impossible to talk about Harari culture without talking about qat but I don’t want Harar to become a destination for drug tourism. Right now there’s a relaxed, friendly relationship between foreigners and Hararis. A bunch of wasted tourists would spoil that really quickly. I don’t think drug tourists would like Harar, though. Qat’s effects are mild and slow to start. Most drug tourists want to get blasted, and qat doesn’t do that. They also want other drugs, and all of them are illegal in Ethiopia. Despite being considered the Holy Land by Rastafaris, getting caught with marijuana in Ethiopia can get you two years in jail.

So please, if you come to Ethiopia, feel free to chew chat, but don’t try anything else. You don’t want to mess with the Ethiopian justice system. The public prosecutor at my birtcha opens Coke bottles with her teeth.

Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: Visiting the Argobba, a little-known African tribe!