That Darned Khat

In search of New York's most elusive drug

Friendly intercourse . . . sounds innocent enough.

The question of whether khat should be recognized internationally as an illegal drug began percolating in 1957, when the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs was asked to take up the question. Fifty years later there still isn't a clear-cut answer.

Over the years, the U.N. commissioned several studies on khat, including a 1975 report that determined cathinone was the chemical that really gives fresh khat its kick. Previously, cathine, which is basically ephedrine, the low-level speed used in diet pills, was believed to be the main active ingredient. Cathinone is many times more powerful, close to amphetamine in its makeup.

illustration: Ronald Kurniawan

Finally, in 1986 the United Nations added cathinone, but not the khat plant, to its list of substances that should be regulated.

While England and most of Europe did not follow suit and still haven't, the Drug Enforcement Administration placed cathinone on its temporary list of controlled substances in 1987. It was permanently made illegal in 1993 after, as the law requires, the Food and Drug Administration did a study on the effects of cathinone. Despite various myths, such as one that khat helped to prevent an outbreak of the plague, the FDA found that too much cathinone is not good for you. The side effects, its study found, included rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure, hyperthermia, headaches, insomnia, anorexia, constipation, gingivitis, and in the case of one longtime user, cerebral hemorrhaging and death.

The FDA reported that a staggering 75 to 90 percent of the men in Somalia and Yemen used khat daily, numbers that have held steady over the intervening years.

On the other hand, the study also says cathinone isn't physically addictive. Dr. Scott Lukas, director of the Behavioral Psychopharmacology Research Laboratory at McLean Hospital in Boston, added that it's important to differentiate between pure cathinone and khat, especially the stuff that arrives in the U.S., which is much less potent than the fresh-picked plant.

Chewed in moderation, Lukas says, "the chances are the person will not get into difficulties with it." In fact, he adds, because it takes hours of chewing to slowly draw the chemicals into the blood system, the khat here is milder on your system than Red Bull or some of these other trendy energy drinks.

Now I really wanted to try some.

Days later, as I enter the office of John Gilbride, head of New York's Drug Enforcement Administration, I remain undecided about the real dangers of khat. Gilbride, soft- spoken and more affable than the average drug enforcer, says it's not his job to sort out the cultural and historical issues around khat. He's just supposed to stop it from getting into the country. Without bravado, Gilbride says Operation Somali Express has "struck a severe blow" to khat's presence in the United States because there isn't another organization of its kind here.

But as Gilbride lays out what's known about khat, my skepticism grows. There's no real related spin-off crime (burglaries, robberies, shootings); it's traded and consumed in private, not out on the street; and there's no proof it has spread beyond the small Somali and Yemeni communities scattered throughout the United States.

So, I ask Gilbride, what's the big deal?

Harvested Khat plants.

Unlike other drug dealers, Gilbride explains, none of the khat traffickers who have been caught had anything to show for it. No boats, no Escalades, no second homes, no offshore bank accounts, no bling whatsoever. Finally it sinks in—the notion of drug runners from an openly hostile Muslim country taking in millions, with nothing, ostensibly, to show for it. I guess I can see how that might be a concern for someone like Gilbride.

"We know the money from khat sales is not staying in the U.S., it's leaving," he says. "Our task now is to find out where the money is going."

In a way, Alsaedi is right. We do think all these motherfuckers are Al Qaeda.

Like a reformed drunk reminiscing about his days off the wagon, Ammar Sulaiman can almost taste the bitter juice slipping down his throat as we talk inside his father's Hadra-mout Restaurant in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

"When I first chewed it, I didn't feel anything. I was like, what's the big deal?" says Sulaiman. "But the more you do it, the better it gets. When you think about something, you really think. When you read a book, you're really into it. When you're listening to a story, you're really imagining it."

Growing up, khat use was so ingrained in everyday life, it was difficult not to chew it, he says. Yemen has a caste system, and if someone from an upper rung offers you some, you have to chew, even if you're against it like Sulaiman's father. There's also a great deal of khat peer pressure. "You can't be the one person who doesn't do it, you'd look like an idiot," he says.

But mostly the reason to chew it is that "there is nothing else to do," he explains, pointing out that in his desperately poor hometown electricity doesn't come on until 6 p.m.

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