The Hague plans ban on qat

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The Netherlands has announced its intention to ban the import and use of qat, the narcotic leaves and shoots of a flowering shrub grown and mainly used in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Qat is very popular within the Somali and Ethiopian communities in the Netherlands.

In a letter to the lower house of parliament, the cabinet writes that it has decided to ban the drug because it is addictive and damages physical and mental health. The qat trade also causes other problems in the Netherlands. The import and use of the drug, also known as khat, is already banned in numerous European countries as well as the US.

The Netherlands serves as a clearing house for much of the qat imported into Europe. Qat, also known as African salad, is a popular stimulant and its use is fairly widespread in Yemen and in East African countries including Somalia and Kenya. The principal active ingredients in the leaves and shoots, which are chewed, are cathinone and cathine, both of which have a pharmacological effect similar to amphetamine. The leaves and shoots are only effective when they're fresh, although infusions from dried leaves are sometimes drunk.

Integration, asylum and integration Minister Gerd Leers influenced the cabinet's decision to ban qat:
"I'm involved in the ban because it appears to cause serious problems, particularly in the Somali community. Ten percent of Somali men experience very serious problems; they are lethargic and refuse to co-operate with the government or take responsibility for themselves or their families. We cannot and will not accept it."

Researchers at the Trimbos Institute, a prominent Dutch addiction and mental health institute, warn that long-term qat use is mentally and physically addictive. According to the EU Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the effects of qat consumption are similar to those of amphetamine; users can experience euphoria, elation and increased alertness but this state may be followed by feelings of depression, listlessness, irritability, anxiety and insomnia. Side effects can include constipation and urine retention. It has also been known to provoke psychotic episodes, particularly if there are already underlying psychological problems.

Distribution hub
Because qat has not yet been banned in the Netherlands, four aircraft carrying the narcotic leaves arrive in the Netherlands every week. Somalis, Ethiopians and other Africans all converge on Uithoorn, near Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, which is the centre of the qat trade in the Netherlands.

Uithoorn's Mayor Dagmar Oudshoorn has been complaining about the problems caused by the qat trade in his town for quite some time: "The council has been working very hard to develop the industrial estate but those efforts have been hampered by the qat dealers. It's difficult when a large group of people turns up four times a week to trade qat. Some of them do not always behave in accordance with the law.”

The town authorities have been calling for a ban for some time and now that addiction experts have warned about the problems of qat use, the government has decided to heed that call. Minister Leers: "The Netherlands is the only country at the moment that still allows qat use. This means that we are at the centre of qat distribution in Europe.”

The Somali community is divided on the issue; some say traumatised refugees find comfort in qat but Somali women welcome the ban; they hope their sons and husbands will become more active and go to school, look for work and be more active within the family.