That Darned Khat

In search of New York's most elusive drug

Hamada Alsaedi, a slight 19-year-old, flashes me a distrusting stare as I enter the Eexus Deli & Discount store in Harlem, where he is jammed in a claustrophobically narrow space behind a Plexiglas partition. When I ask another worker about where to get khat, referring to it as a drug, Alsaedi interjects, "It's not drugs. . . . Even the children in my country use it." Alsaedi says he has been in the U.S. since he was seven, but regularly returns home, where he chews khat, the leaf of a shrub/tree called Catha edulis. Highly if not completely Americanized, Alsaedi explains to me how we might decide to use khat, if we—Hamada and Sean—were hanging together in Yemen. "I'd be like, 'Sean, where we gonna chill today?' [Me] 'Let's go over there to the special place' or whatever. 'OK, I'm gonna get some khat.' 'OK.' And we chill."

Khat is used the same way as the leafy version of chewing tobacco, balled into a side of a cheek. But the chewing lasts for hours and hours (usually some liquid— water, tea, or soda—is needed to ward off dry mouth) and the juice is swallowed, not spit out. Although he's been chewing it since boyhood, Alsaedi says the effect is "hard to explain." You become very relaxed while at the same time very energized. You talk a lot but also listen better. It's great for helping you focus. After the initial khat rush, a contemplative state can take over (some have described it as a mild mushroom trip).

Some people claim khat is an aphrodisiac; others say it's the opposite. Apparently it also quells hunger. It's especially helpful on long drives and has become a staple for truckers and taxi drivers and students, he explained. It's also big at weddings, celebrations, and some religious ceremonies.

illustration: Ronald Kurniawan

Alsaedi said he hasn't been able to find khat in the U.S. for years. Although it's apparently dried up here, it's obvious to him why the government is still interested in it.

"The thing is, the U.S. is so protective now, like when you have a little child. They're saying these motherfuckers are all Al Qaeda. But you can't just judge someone for someone else's mistakes. Every village has good people and bad people."

Good point. But I'm not here just to theorize about khat. I want to try some. Time to keep looking.

My search for khat began late in September after the Queens district attorney sent out a press release detailing an arrest for khat possession. In 15 years covering crime, I had never heard of the substance. Apparently, after picking up a 13-pound box of khat, workers at a Queens UPS warehouse tipped off police. As the cops moved in for the pinch, the suspects were still sitting in their car outside UPS contentedly munching mouthfuls of the leaves. The press release went on to surprise me with the news that khat "is in the same legal category as heroin or cocaine."

A computer search quickly revealed references to Black Hawk Down, the 2001 Ridley Scott movie about the U.S.'s botched military raid in Mogadishu. Khat was the substance that supposedly juiced up the Somali warlords' gun-wielding militias. Later, I find that over the past year khat (pronounced "kot") was second only to marijuana in total pounds seized by U.S. Customs agents nationwide—more than double that of cocaine, and 28 times more than methamphetamine.

Just this past summer, authorities busted the first substantial khat-trafficking ring in the U.S. "Operation Somali Express" resulted in 44 men and women arrested in connection with importing of 25 tons of khat the previous 18 months, with an estimated street value of $10 million. The head of New York's FBI office then expressed concern that khat profits were being used to fund terrorists associated with Al Qaeda. On Nightline, a Drug Enforcement Administration official said he feared khat was being "marketed . . . in all cross-sections of our country." And the newscaster ended on this ominous note—"Today's raid is the nation's first attempt to stop this new drug before it's able to take hold. The question is, will it work?"

An interesting question, but I still wanted to know the answer to mine: Where can I find some?

There was a time, not so long ago, when in- stead of being labeled a Schedule I controlled substance alongside heroin, LSD, and magic mushrooms, khat, which has been cultivated for over 600 years, was considered a cultural custom—a curiosity, not a crime.

In 1924, Dr. Louis Lewin, a pharmacologist, described a traveling friend's first encounter with khat, or kat—it has dozens of different spellings and names—in his Phantastica: A Classic Survey on the Use and Abuse of Mind-Altering Plants.

"When during my travels in Yemen I saw the high, many-storied houses of the mountain villages late at night brilliantly illuminated, and their windows shining in the darkness, I enquired what the inhabitants did at that time of the night. I was told that 'friends and acquaintances meet and sit for hours round the brazier drinking their coffee prepared from the husks and chew their indispensable kat, which keeps them awake and promotes friendly intercourse.' "

Next Page »
New York Concert Tickets