That Darned Khat

In search of New York's most elusive drug

I later learn that the majority of khat seizures, weight-wise, come from passengers carrying suitcases, usually each filled with 40 or 50 pounds of it. The couriers—usually poor white people from the United Kingdom— are supplied with an airplane ticket, a paid hotel room, and some spending money. Some know it's illegal; others don't. Over 1,000 couriers have been caught smuggling khat into New York over the past five years.

None have been arrested or prosecuted.

Instead, the khat is seized, the couriers deported and placed on a return-restricted list and, in some cases, fined $500. It turns out prosecuting these cases is too difficult because, three days after the khat's picked, the cathinone breaks down and disappears.

illustration: Ronald Kurniawan

Apparently it's hard to hold couriers on suspected possession of twigs.

170 pounds of Cathinone "Khat" worth $385,900
Cathinone's propensity to disappear has turned 67-year-old Sidney L. Moore into the Perry Mason of the khat world.

Moore knows the chemistry of the plant and its more than 40 alkaloids and the testing procedures as well as anyone alive—certainly far more than cops and prosecutors, from both small and big towns, who are usually involved in their first khat cases. He throws numbers at the jury, like telling them you'd have to chew 650 pounds of khat to squeeze one gram of cathinone out of it. Or chipping an aspirin into a smidgen to show how much actual cathinone another huge shipment contains. He says the defendants don't know from cathinone; they chew it because they've always chewed it. It's just a habit. The juries get it. Sending a man away for such a piddling amount of drugs doesn't fly, "even in the reddest of red states," he says.

Speaking to me on the phone from his Atlanta office, his words come out unhurried and in a Southern drawl. Moore estimates he has handled, from Maine to Texas, about 70 cases, which probably constitutes a majority of the khat prosecutions nationwide. About 10 of them are still pending, 51 or 52 ended in acquittal, and the other eight or nine he lost.

Most of the prosecutions have occurred over the past five years, with many thrown out because of unconstitutional searches.

"We've had so many funny, funny cases," says Moore, set to be the lead prosecutor in the Operation Somali Express case next summer in New York. "It's been like Keystone Kops ever since 9-11. . . . For some reason when these local police forces encounter anyone named Mohamed they're going to consider him a terrorist until proven otherwise." His comment brings to mind the case against the tall, lanky, bearded Somali wedding singer who looked so much like Osama bin Laden, his musician friends took to calling him that. A hotel clerk heard "Osama" and saw the resemblance. You can imagine the rest.

After a string of losses, prosecutors recently changed strategies, forgoing possession cases in favor of conspiracy and money-laundering charges. "By using the conspiracy theory they seek to avoid having to prove there was any cathinone," Moore says. "They just have to prove there was an attempt to obtain cathinone."

Last November, Brooklyn federal prosecutors made such charges stick to Abdirashid Hassan. Despite a heartfelt plea for mercy, "Please, I beg, let me go with my family. Let me raise my kids. I have a beautiful family waiting for me. . . . I would never touch it again," Hassan got banged.

For importing plants (even if it was 20,000 kilos' worth) that at best contained only trace amounts of the illegal substance cathinone, Hassan was sentenced to a minimum seven and a quarter years in prison, the second-longest khat sentence ever handed down in the U.S.

In reading some of Hassan's court documents, I found a reference to khat business being conducted at the Yemen and Somalia Restaurant on West 116th Street. Can this be my salvation at last?

I find the spot on the northern side of the street between Seventh and Eighth avenues, on a block dominated with African shops. Much to my chagrin, the Yemen and Somalia Restaurant has disappeared.

I head down the block and spot an awning for the Masjid Salam mosque. The second-floor mosque is open, but there's no one around to talk to. So I duck into the Addis Café & Deli in the storefront beneath. Sitting at a table with a laptop and a folded copy of The New York Times, owner Mekonnen Tadesse is tapping away at his computer as I approach.

When I tell him what I'm doing, he offers, "The feds think it is a drug so it's hard to get it now."

Tadesse obviously doesn't agree. "It's like drinking a coffee . . . like an espresso."

Tadesse, 46, grew up in the Ethiopian town of Addis Ababa and has lived in the United States for 18 years. He knows a lot of those swept up in Operation Somali Express and says they're all "quality people," not criminals. Most are in or nearing middle age and are hardworking. Their one vice was chewing khat and bullshitting about their homeland.

From his usual table in his deli he has a clear view of the comings and goings of the mosque next door. Since the khat supply has dried up in the past couple years, it seems more people are attending services. He doesn't think it's just a coincidence, nor does Tadesse, who's Christian, think it necessarily a good thing.

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