Next for Somalia: khat wars?

Since seizing power in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, in June, the Islamic Courts Union has banned khat leaf, the mild stimulant which has been traditionally chewed by Somalis for centuries. Imports of khat from Kenya, a main supplier, are being intercepted and burned, and flights from Kenya have actually been halted. This has resulted in a shortage which has sparked angry protests by local khat merchants in Mogadishu, who have lost their income. In one protest on Nov. 16, Islamist fighters shot into the crowd, killing one person. (BBC, Nov. 16)

The Islamic Courts Union is using the issue against its political enemies in the struggle for control of the country, accusing the “official” interim Somali government and the UN agencies that support it of bringing khat into regions controlled by the Islamists. The ICU’s Sheikh Abdikarim Ali Mudey cited “secret briefings” indicating a UN role in the khat trade. “We will never accept the use of [khat] in areas controlled by the Islamic Courts because its un-Islamic practice,” Sheikh Mudey said. (Garowe Online, Nov. 18)

So what is this khat stuff anyway? Sean Gardiner of the Village Voice notes in his recent article “That Darned Khat: In search of New York’s most elusive drug,” that the leaf, once common in the city’s Ethiopian and Yemeni immigrant enclaves, is disappearing from the Big Apple as well as Mogadishu due to a government crackdown:

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. [Of course in terms of potency these comparisons are meaningless–WW4R]

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.

Yeah, so do we. But Sean, after much hunting around Harlem and Brooklyn, was not sucessful in his quest. It seems American federal prosecutors and the much-demonized Islamic Courts Union have something in common…

See our last post on Somalia.