Khat Happens

OUTSIDE A SHABBY two-story office building on Nicollet Avenue, a friendly discussion has erupted. "I have chewed khat. My uncle used to sell khat. My father chewed khat. It is not a drug," insists Said, an Eritrean. "I never saw my father get crazy or hurt anyone." Abdikarim Osman Ugas, a UM English graduate student from Somalia, disagrees. "I've seen grown men cry when they can't get khat," he argues. "If it's not a drug, why do they pay $30 or $35 to get some?"

Over the past year, the same debate has been played out through Minnesota's courts, police precincts, and international ports of entry. Fueled by a growing immigrant community from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, and the Middle East, the demand for the drug known as khat is on the rise. It's a social drug back home, with groups of men gathering to chew the leaves of the catha edulis tree at the end of their day. But in the United States, it's an illegal drug, classified as a schedule-one narcotic by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which puts it in the same legal category as heroin and cocaine.

As is often the case in cross-cultural phenomena, even the nature of the drug itself is cloudy, and translates poorly. "I think some even say it has less effect than coffee," says Osman Sahardeed, coordinator of the Somali Community of Minnesota. In Somalia, he says, "the elders used it. It was widely accepted." Out of the 600 or 700 drug cases Hennepin County District Court Judge Kevin Burke heard in the past year, a handful concerned khat. "I'd say it's more like alcohol," he hazards. "You'd have to drink one hell of a lot of coffee to mess up your life. I'm a little hesitant to say, 'Don't worry about khat.' I may have seen a fairly skewed version of users, but the people that I've seen are not horribly strung out. I'm not trying to excuse use of the drug, but it pales in comparison to the people I've seen on crack or meth."

Jim Bransford, who runs Excelsior Project, Inc., the drug-and-alcohol counseling center where Ugas helps out, likens chewing khat to chewing coca leaves: a mild, culturally accepted stimulant that bears no comparison to the concentrated cocaine derivative extracted from the coca plant. "What makes it illegal," he maintains, "is that the DEA says it is."

Part of the confusion over khat's potency comes from the active ingredients in the catha edulis leaves, particularly cathinone, which is what gives the drug its schedule-one priority on the DEA list. But cathinone is present mostly in fresh khat, and steadily diminishes with the age of the leaves.

Because stale khat loses its cathinone, shipments come by airplane from Canada and England (where the drug is legal) in small packages tied up in banana leaves to preserve moisture. Someone smuggling khat into the country could face up to life in prison, although first-time offenders are generally treated more leniently and recent changes in immigration law allow repeat offenders to be deported. The problem is that few Somalis know that khat, a drug widely accepted in their homeland, is even illegal here.

In the past year, only some nine people have been arrested and charged in Hennepin County with possessing khat. With the exception of one English baggage handler deported for trying to smuggle the drug, they have all been Somalis caught with small amounts appropriate for personal use and none have been sentenced to jail time.

Ugas, who is a court interpreter, remembers one case in which the police stopped a Somali in his car who happened to be chewing khat. "They said, 'What do you do with khat?' And he says, 'Oh that? I'm selling it.' That shows you they don't know that it's a drug."

Since the Somali civil war, immigration from the African nation has been on the rise. Estimates of the number of Somalis living in Minnesota range upward from 10,000, and many come to the Twin Cities having never lived with running water or coped with urban life, much less with an American city. "Khat is something that can help them feel like they are at home," Ugas says. "By doing khat and talking with friends, it reminds them that, while they are far from home at least by distance, they are still near Somalia."

"These are new immigrants to the country and they need to get educated to a lot of things," says Sahardeed, whose organization, Somali Community of Minnesota, is designed to do just that. Sahardeed was first alerted to the illegality of khat when a young Somali came to him after he was arrested for possessing the drug. It took him by surprise. "What surprised me the most is that if it's a drug, if it has side effects, or some other stuff, then the British would have a law before anyone else because they are who colonized our part of the world," he reasons. "In England, they take taxes from people, they import khat the same as tea. And London," he laughs, "it's not like Amsterdam, if you know what I'm saying."

But in the United States, in the era of rigid drug prohibition, the legalization of khat stands little chance, whatever its place in the culture of African immigrants. "The active ingredients are serious drugs. They're not caffeine," says Jim Spencer, an attorney with the criminal division of the state attorney general's office. "Generally, the social use of drugs is not an excuse. My own perception is that khat is a growing problem."

If the DEA needed any ammunition as to the seriousness of khat, it could have cited stories from western reporters covering the Somali civil war. News reports from the region detailed drug-crazed "war lords" sporting fistfuls of grenades and mouths full of khat. Even the usually staid Journal of the American Medical Association strayed into hyperbolic territory when it featured the drug in a 1993 article. "It is difficult to determine just how much the aggression-inducing nature of khat has contributed," JAMA reported, "to what is already a cauldron of anarchy and violence in Somalia. Reports in the media have associated khat chewing with reckless driving, senseless arguments, and the exchange of gunfire."

Sahardeed, however, calls these reports "just nonsense. I have been with Somali all my life, and I've never seen a Somali guy who gets crazy or anything like that while chewing khat. I've never seen anything like it."

Ugas hopes to launch a program called the Somali Community Service Center that would not only alert Somalis to the risks of using khat, but would help them with the wider range of issues they face as recent immigrants to the United States. To Ugas, the two are inseparable. "It's about the conflict of cultures. They're refugees from the civil war, really. Some of them saw their own parents killed in front of them. Right now there are no psychologists or social workers who can see what's going on with them."

Since the first young Somali arrestee came to him for help with his drug charge, Sahardeed has sought clarification of the drug laws from the attorney general and local police departments, but even a seasoned immigrant like Sahardeed seems confused about khat's status. "We can't find any law or any articles, we don't really have anything that says it's illegal."

Like Ugas, Sahardeed says his main concern is alerting Somali immigrants to the dangers they face--arrest, and under the new immigration laws, possible deportation--if they are found with khat. "What we want is to educate the people." But the fact that khat is often a mild drug and its universal cultural acceptance back home--Ugas offers that 80 percent of his countrymen use khat--make the job more difficult. But deportation and jail time are all too real deterrents. "If anybody wants to abide by the laws of this country," says Sahardeed, "we, the Somalis, want to do that."

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