Khat comes to America, prompting crackdown
© 2000, The Associated Press State & Local Wire, April 23, 2000
By Tom Hayes
In a tiny Brooklyn cafe with faded tourist posters of Yemen in
the window, the mood at a table of Arab men darkens when the topic turns to khat.
"In my country, khat
is easy," says Abdul Rahman. "Everybody, the president, they have it. ... I
don't understand this."
Rahman, a 26-year-old
Yemeni, was working at the cafe on the Islamic
holiday Eid al-Adha when
narcotics officers walked in and busted three men
in the basement on drug
Raids at the Blue
Province Restaurant and two other Yemeni businesses last month had nothing to do with
cocaine, designer drugs or even marijuana. Instead, the target was people selling khat, a
stimulating leaf that many in the Middle East chew like tobacco and consider no more
sinister than a double espresso.
Rahman and other Arab
immigrants in Brooklyn say that before the raids they had no idea khat (pronounced cot)
was illegal here. "The community has been consuming khat for a long time - this is
not a secret," said Ali Sharaf, a member of a Yemen-American student group. "I'm
surprised that now it's a big thing."
Back home in Yemen, khat
chewing is commonplace, often a daily practice. It's the same in Djibouti and Somalia on
the Horn of Africa.
U.S. authorities got
interested when khat appeared more and more in Arab communities around the country.
"This is a serious
problem," said New York City police spokesman Sgt. Andrew McInnis. "We responded
to complaints about the negative impact on
Authorities allege the
suspects arrested in the raids were breaking laws banning possession of cathonine - the
key ingredient in freshly cut khat leaves, which look like basil. The federal government
lists cathonine as a "Schedule I" controlled substance, the same category as
heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
Khat chewers say it gives
them energy and a feeling of euphoria. But the Drug Enforcement Administration maintains
that khat is psychologically addictive.
Compulsive use, the DEA
says, "may result in manic behavior with grandiose delusions or in a paranoid type of
illness, sometimes accompanied by hallucinations."
Khat is believed to have
been traded as a commodity even before coffee. Its use originated in Ethiopia, then spread
through east Africa and parts of the Middle East. Muslim legend has it that its stimulant
effect enabled all-night prayer vigils.
But now some people in
Yemen are worried that too many government workers were wasting away their afternoons -
and their income - chewing khat. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has tried to set an example
by announcing he will only chew on weekends.
The United Nations
estimates that in Djibouti, 98 percent of the men use khat to numb the pain of poverty.
Somalian warlords dole it out to soldiers as part of daily rations.
In the United States, the
market for khat appears to be limited and nonviolent. Customs officers confiscated 49,000
pounds of khat in fiscal 1999, compared to 1.2 million pounds of marijuana.
Most of the khat was
seized at the New York area airports. Agents who caught a whiff of the plant's pungent
smell during random inspections last year found a total of 30,500 pounds stashed in
luggage, mainly in amounts so small the couriers weren't prosecuted.
Seizures also have been
made at Denver's airport, on the New Jersey Turnpike and in Minneapolis. In San Jose,
Calif., a Yemeni man was arrested
in 1998 for growing 1,000
plants in what was described as the first khat plantation in the United States.
Still, khat "is
probably not one of our priorities," said New York DEA spokesman Stan Skowronski.
Police launched the
Brooklyn investigation about six months ago after learning that street dealers were
peddling khat around Arab storefronts. The going price was $40 for a day's supply.
On March 15, an
undercover officer bought khat at a Yemeni restaurant. The next day, the Islamic holiday,
officers found customers lined up for refrigerated khat being cut up and sold at the Blue
Province Restaurant, authorities said.
By the time officers
wrapped up the investigation, they had seized about 240 pounds of khat and arrested eight
people. The defendants face up to seven years in prison if convicted of felony drug
James Palumbo, attorney
for one suspect, said his client was shocked to find himself the target of a drug bust.
The community, he added, doesn't need to see anyone go to jail to be scared straight.
law-abiding people," he said. "The cops have made their point."
One young Yemenite, who
identified himself only as Jamil, admitted buying khat at the Blue Province only an hour
before the police raid.
"When you're around
(khat), you've got to have it," Jamil said. "But it's bad for us. We need to
found at checkpoint
Copyright 1999 San Diego Union-Tribune,
August 10, 1999
By Gregory Alan Gross
Border Patrol agents used to seizing bales of
marijuana were momentarily stumped by the rolled-up banana leaves on the floor of the
But one veteran agent recognized what was inside
the banana fronds
khat, a shrublike plant from central and
southern Africa. The leaves of the plant act as a narcotic stimulant when chewed.
We don't see much of this stuff, said
Vince Bond, U.S. Customs spokesman in San Diego.
The Corolla's two occupantsone a
naturalized Canadian citizen living in Toronto, the other a legal resident U.S. alien from
Los Angeleswere stopped at the Border Patrols checkpoint on northbound
Interstate 15 Saturday afternoon when agents noticed the banana leaves, rolled up in
Luckily, we had a supervisor here who had
seen it before, said Sherry Feltner, the Border Patrol agent in charge of the
Temecula checkpoint. If it had been me, I would've been saying, What the hell
The two men, both 40 years old and born in
Somalia,2 were questioned but eventually released, minus their leafy cargo,
which amounted to about one-third of a pound. Border Patrol officials indicated that the
amount of khat seized was too small to justify prosecution.
But while the two men may have been transporting
a minuscule amount of khat, others are more ambitious, and much more organized.
We seize a lot of it at [Los Angeles
International Airport], said customs spokesman Mike Flemming in Los Angeles. Customs
officials at LAX said yesterday that agents often intercept would-be khat smugglers with
loads of up to 100 pounds of the narcotic leaf.
Because it is extremely perishableit
usually loses its potency after three dayssuch amounts are much more than any
individual could be bringing in for personal use, said Kevin Rupp, assistant customs port
director at the airport.
There are people actually recruiting
couriers in England; they advertise for them in newspapers, Rupp said. They're
given an airline ticket, a little spending money and a couple of suitcases full of
. . .
The federal government considers khat a
controlled substance, in the same category as cocaine and heroin. Still, it turns up in
ethnic markets, restaurants and shops in New York, Boston, Detroit, Dallas and Washington,
Nationwide, customs agents have seen nearly
35,000 pounds of khat so far this fiscal year, which began last October and runs through
the end of September. In fiscal 1998, agents confiscated nearly 62,000 pounds. Between
fiscal 1997 and 1998, the number of khat seizures by customs nearly tripled to 1,410.
Editorial Notes by Richard Glen Boire, Esq.
1 Another article about the arrest quoted U. S.
Border Patrol spokesman Mario Villarreal as saying, What is so unusual is that some
of us never even heard of this before. It was the first known seizure of khat by
border agents in the region, said Villareal. (See, African stimulant seized at
Temecula checkpoint, The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, CA, Tuesday, August 10,
2 Evidently, both men told agents they were
Canadian citizens, but a computer check revealed the men were Somalian and legal residents
of the United States. With their suspicion piqued by the discrepancy, the Border Patrol
agents asked the men to consent to a search, whereupon they allegedly allowed the agents
to search the car.