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Khat: socially acceptable stimulant or instrument of Satan?

By: Said Sheik-Abdi
Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder
Originally posted 12/20/2006

A decade and a half ago, federal and local law enforcement agents had little knowledge of the East African and Arabian Peninsula plant called khat or qat. Many East African khat-chewers who were resettled in the United States during the late 1980s and early ’90s under the United Nations refugee resettlement program used to bring kilos of khat with them, some for their personal usage and others for business or as a gift to their khat-chewing friends or family members who were already in the U.S.

It was the best gift to give, as they knew they were crossing thousands of miles and this green-leaved plant was legal to bring and is not grown in North America. But the dream of having what they and their forefathers used to sit for hours chewing back home ended in 1993, when the U.S. government declared khat a dangerous and illegal drug; it was classified as a “controlled substance” because of the chemical presence of cathinone and cathine in it.

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Many East African and Yemani khat-chewing immigrants here were in a state of shock and disbelief when they heard this news. It was a painful wake-up call; some still have difficulty abiding by the law, which has resulted and continues to result in many being arrested and convicted, including this past summer’s “Operation Somali Express” bust by U.S. drug enforcement agents.

Others quit using khat temporarily while in the United States to respect their host country’s new law, but they resume chewing while visiting home or many European countries where it remains legal, including the United Kingdom.

Khat is commonly chewed in Britain, says Mohamed Shire, who has been living in the U.S. since 1994 and avoids chewing it while in the States to abide by the law and avoid prosecution. Shire has been chewing khat occasionally for more than 30 years.

He travels back to Africa once in awhile, and the first reception he gets when he goes back includes free kilos of khat, a packet of cigars, and bottles of Coke. Many of his old friends back home call khat the “Freedom Vegetable of Africa,” says Shire.

Khat is a shrub tree growing to five to eight meters tall with evergreen leaves. Although its origin remains disputable, it is believed to have originated in Yemen and spread to Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and many other African countries. For centuries in these countries, khat has been used as a stimulant during social gatherings.

The legality and illegality of khat has not only divided immigrant communities, it also has divided many countries, including the U.S. and U.K.

Khat illegal in United States

Khat, also known as jaad in Somalia, miraa in Kenya, and qat in Ethiopia, is forbidden to use in the United States under the Controlled Substances Act. It was banned after cathinone and cathine were found to be present in the khat leaves.

Cathinone is a chemical classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act and is deemed to have a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use as a drug under medical supervision.

Cathine is a Schedule IV drug and is classified as having a low potential for abuse and is currently accepted for medical use in treatment in the United States; abuse of Schedule IV drugs may lead to limited physical or psychological dependence.

If you are found consuming, smuggling or selling khat in the United States, you may face up to 20 years imprisonment. It may also affect your current status in the country if you are an alien.

Khat legal in United Kingdom

The world recognizes the United Kingdom and the United States to be close allies with much shared history and culture, but when it comes to the khat issue, these countries have chosen different directions. Each country has many other countries supporting its particular view on the matter of khat, but the question of who is scientifically right or wrong remains unanswered.

According to media reports, in 2005, after many immigrant families had addressed khat problems and requested the government to ban the substance in the U.K., the minister responsible for drugs appointed an advisory council to find out if khat is a harmful drug. The council concluded that khat is not subject to control under the Misuse of Drug Act of 1971. They also made a number of other recommendations, including educating and informing users and potential users of the harm associated with khat use.

Since then, trading khat has become a successful enterprise, and it is one of the more commonly used vegetables in the U.K., not only by immigrants but by many non-immigrants as well. It is sold in public places called Marfresh where you can also have a place to sit and chew for hours while socializing with other chewers.

To feel khat stimulation, one may need to chew for hours. Khat is imported in large quantities mainly from Kenya, Ethiopia and Yemen via KLM, Ethiopian Airlines and Kenyan Airways. Security clearance is completed prior to flights to the United Kingdom. It is sold daily on the streets of London.

According to the U.K. government, about five to seven tons of khat arrive in the country daily. Much of this is believed to end up illegally in U.S. markets where the profit margin is greater.

It is not known how much one kilogram of khat costs in the U.S. market, but it is believed to run between $60 and $80. In contrast, one kilogram of khat in the U.K. costs 3-6 British pounds (about $6-$12), says Abdirahman Ahmed, who is a “Friday khat chewer” in London. He also told the Spokesman-Recorder that he works several jobs and chews between jobs.

Harmful and helpful effects

According to the World Health Organization, cathinone is in the Schedule I category of psychotropic substances. Mohammed Mahmoud Al-Zoubairi, poet and revolutionary Yemeni hero, passionately condemned khat back in 1958. In his writing, he compares khat to the devil.

In Al-Zoubairi’s words, “The devil grew from the earth to consume the nutrients of other innocent plants. He made the Yemeni people lust after Him, and is fighting in their stomachs against valuable nutrients for the human body. Then He runs in their veins like Satan, and enters their pockets to steal their money. Satan can bring them in the morning as far as the mountain peaks but in the evening will not let them sleep, leaving them in the nightmare of their imaginations. The Yemeni people live half of their lives in His magic. He consumes their strength and heroism. He is our governor, this cursed tree.”

Khat chewers are sometimes seen at the Fairview University Hospital emergency room in the Twin Cities, the majority of them presenting signs of psychosis, says Dr. Ismail Moalim, a Somali-American internal medicine doctor in his final year of residence. He tells the Spokesman-Recorder that khat is a stimulant, and its continued use may cause loss of appetite, sleeping problems, weight loss, mood swings, hallucinations, and in some cases decreased sexual activity.

Khat consumers drink soda or tea while chewing the plant. Because of its acidity and the presence of sugar in the drinks, the chewing causes cavities that ultimately can result in tooth loss, says Dr. Saharla Jama, a Somali-American dentist at Health Partners Midway Dental Clinic in Saint Paul.

Long hours of chewing also causes dry mouth and gum disease, and there may be risk for oral cancer, says Jama.

On the other hand, khat advocates disagree that it should be considered a dangerous substance like cocaine and methamphetamine. Many of them believe it is in some ways bad but not harmful when used for social and cultural purposes. They also believe that alcohol is more harmful than khat.

Khat has not been associated with violence like some other Schedule I drugs. For the last decade, it has been linked to only one homicide in Minnesota.

According to the British Broadcasting Corporation News, researchers at King’s College in London examined the effect of one of the cathine substances present in khat on mouse sperm a few years ago. They found that cathine accelerated the development of the sperm so it reached the stage where it was fertile more quickly. This has left many unanswered questions, and further research remains to be done. If world researchers agree on the outcome of this research, khat could soon be found on hospital shelves as a fertility agent.

Many East African immigrants in the Twin Cities support the banning of khat in the United States because of related socio-economic problems, says Abdillahi Nur, executive director for African Community Services. Amina Dualle, community organizer for Somali Action Alliance, attended a community drug workshop in September and was not surprised to learn that many community members still see khat as socially destructive but not a drug.

Somali’s Islamic Union Courts, which control many areas in Somalia, recently banned khat use for religious reasons. There is no political agreement between Somali Islamists and the U.S. government, but both share one common value — banning khat.

Unless the countries growing khat — primarily Kenya, Ethiopia and Yemen — are pressured by the rest of the world to stop, it is almost impossible to control the flow of the substance into those countries where it is illegal, where it brings more trouble and drains millions of dollars from their economies.

Said Sheik Abdi welcomes reader responses to [email protected]

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