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.

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 khatbegan 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.' "

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.

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?


image
Harvested Khat plants.
photo: dea.gov

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.

Sulaiman, stocky with short dark hair, carries himself like a man much older than his 25 years. He says his khat consumption is limited to trips home to Yaffa for several reasons. For starters, his father is a strict Muslim who's dead set against it. Also, the khat in the U.S. is excessively expensive (at least $40 and as high as $80 a "bundle," the amount usually chewed in one session, compared to $5 back home for a pile three times as big). And since it arrives five or six days after picking, it doesn't pack the punch of the stuff back home.

But the real reason neither Sulaiman nor any of his Yemeni friends here use khat is they simply can't find it.

Looking around to make sure his father's out of earshot, Sulaiman tells me of the time a few years back when he and some friends decided to get some khat. It used to be sold and used openly in the Yemeni restaurants and stores in Cobble Hill, so they didn't think it'd be a problem. After a day spent independently searching, they all came back empty-handed.

"Since the crackdown on it, " Sulaiman says, "I think everybody's in hiding."

The crackdown he speaks of is twofold: Six years ago, there was a routine bust of three restaurants in the neighborhood, in which nine Yemeni men were arrested and 200 pounds of khat seized. That raid put the community on notice; police weren't tolerating the previously open khat trade anymore. The other part of the crackdown, Sulaiman says, has been the extra law enforcement scrutiny of his community since September 11. Get a Muslim for any infraction and try to flip them for information about terrorism. To that end, there have been visits to Sulaiman's restaurant from snooping cops and several customers suspected of being undercovers or informants inquiring about khat.

But Sulaiman doesn't see the khat- terrorism connection. Al Qaeda are the most fervently religious Muslims and believe khat violates the Koran. As he puts it, "Whoever sells it [khat] would have to be not one of those religious guys."


After weeks of coming up empty, I need to physically see some khat. I'd almost given up on an energy boost, but at this point I could use a morale boost. So I go to the one place where I know they have a lot of it—John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Last year, Customs seized 52,239 pounds of khat, about half a ton each week, at JFK alone. In 2004, over 90,000 pounds of the stuff was seized there. New York is the nation's khat hub.

The U.S. Customs building is located in a huge, nondescript hangar on the ass end of JFK. As I drive out there, I daydream of possible scenes I might be privy to: fired-up Customs agents with drug-sniffing dogs taking down outlaw khat couriers. Or maybe a seizure of a shipment of khat hidden in some ingeniously devious way.

Upon arrival, I'm steered into a conference room to meet agents from Customs, which does the seizing, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which does the investigations.

Customs agent Laura Rios starts out by telling me traffickers usually list the khat shipments as being magazines, coffee, or tea, items that would be of a similar weight. Most seizures come from Yemen or Kenya or England, where khat is still legal. Khat used to be shipped in banana leaves to keep it moist, but nowadays most times it's wrapped in newspaper that is wetted before mailing. Because the khat is so odoriferous and the boxes are usually soggy, detecting it is pretty easy, Rios says.

As I press on I notice that, before answering, the agents seem to be first glancing at a Customs supervisor who's sitting in on the session. His job, apparently, is to make my interview as uninteresting as possible.

When I ask Rios where the khat is taken after it's seized, he butts in, "Let's just say to another facility." In the city, out of the city, where? "Let's just say another facility." OK . . . how is it destroyed? "Let's just say it gets destroyed."

After 20 or so minutes of this, we move into the hangar—a gigantic mail room. Despite the fact they tell me 1.3 million pieces of mail move through JFK a day, there are no workers in sight.


Can I see some seizures in action? No, the supervisor says. Instead, I'm led to a desolate corner of the hangar. There, sitting on a hand truck, are five or six boxes of varying sizes. Behind them is a nearly empty fenced-in area with the sign "Khat Cage" on it. My photographer is told not to take pictures of the mail room, and an agent asks me if I could keep my description of the generic-looking boxes of khat generic. They don't want the bad guys "knowing that we know," she tells me. I look at the boxes again to see if I'm missing something.

The unveiling of the khat is, in a word, disappointing. A date on the English newspaper it came wrapped in marks the shipment as 10 days old. The stems and leaves are covered in a thick, white mold. Just a clump of rotting, smelly vegetation.

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.

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


image
170 pounds of Cathinone "Khat" worth $385,900
photo: statepatrol.ohio.gov
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.

"We're going to force these people to become radicalized, like the Taliban. [Without khat] they don't have any alternative but to turn to Islam."

When I ask about the Yemen and Somalia Restaurant, he says several years ago khat was openly used there, but different owners run the place that's there now, the Dibiterie Cheikh Restaurant.

I stop in anyway, hoping to find a holdover from the old days. I meet the manager, Gracya Fall, a pretty, smiling moonfaced woman with a swath of gold cloth in her hair matching her dress, and ask if West Africans also use khat. I puff out my cheek and started making a chewing motion as a visual aid. Fall looks perplexed for a moment and then starts listing foods, "Lamb, beef, chicken." Suddenly I realize she thinks I'm asking if they serve cat.


I'm feeling about as useless as 10-day-old khat—not that I wouldn't settle for some—when a call to Minnesota, which has the largest Somali community in the U.S., bucks me up.

Lieutenant Gregory Reinhardt of the Minneapolis Police Department, supposing, correctly, that I'm not Somali, informs me: "Oh, you and I can never go out and get it. [I'd] buy crack cocaine and marijuana when I was an undercover agent. I'd never be able to buy khat."

Sorry, Greg. I'm not giving up yet.

I hear from a friend that he knows a guy who says he bought khat a couple years back from a bodega at Canal and Essex streets. The outskirts of Chinatown seem an unlikely place for khat, but I'm desperate.

The bodega on that corner is T & Tai Hung Food Market Inc. I figure, even if they are selling it there, it's a long shot they'd sell it to me—a beefy, white guy with short hair who has occasionally been mistaken for a cop.

But I've got nothing to lose. I stick my notebook in my pocket and ask the store clerk, a small bespectacled Asian man with a wispy mustache, if they sell khat. He smiles but doesn't seem to know what I'm talking about. I tell him, "Khat, the plant from East Africa. I was told you guys sell it here."

"Africa? Ah, no, no," he says, smiling.

He seems to be telling the truth. Just to make sure, I walk across the street and watch to see if any Somali- or Yemeni-looking people enter the store. I'm khat profiling.

As I watch a steady procession of Asian customers enter, buy lottery tickets, and leave, I hear a woman with an African-sound ing accent next to me ask for what I think is khat. She's talking to an Asian man who works in the ABA Super Gift store. Maybe I have the wrong place. Maybe the khat dealers are on this side of the street.

The man grunts and continues arranging bags of luggage for sale outside the store, ignoring her. The woman, who is carrying three large garbage bags, demands, "Do you have it or not?" The man grunts yes, and as he shuffles into the store, she says, "I need strong. A strong one."

This is it, I think, finally. I start thinking of how I should approach the guy. Maybe I should stake it out. Or should I enlist the help of someone who looks less like a narc, maybe Hamada or Ammar, to help me buy it? Or should I . . . just give up and leave khat to the small community of émigrés who go through even more trouble than I have to get it?

Because, instead of khat, the Asian man emerges from the store holding several carts, the fold-up kind people carry groceries home in.

"Fifteen dollars," he says to the lady.

My search continues.

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