Pubdate: Wed, 11 Sep 2002
Source: San Francisco Examiner (CA)
Copyright: 2002 San Francisco Examiner
Author: Stephanie V. Siek


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- An influx of immigrants from Somalia and other African 
and Middle Eastern countries has led to increased use in some U.S. cities 
of the illegal drug khat, a leaf that is chewed for its amphetaminelike 
high, authorities say.

Khat has been seen in cities such as Detroit and New York since the 1980s. 
But it was virtually unknown in Columbus and Minneapolis until the late 
1990s, authorities say.

Use of the drug appears to be confined largely to immigrant communities, 
police in Columbus and Minneapolis say.

Khat has been illegal since 1993 in the United States.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, chronic use can cause 
violence and suicidal depression similar to amphetamine addiction, though 
the agency said it was unaware of any examples.

Khat has increased in prevalence in the past several years with an influx 
of immigrants from countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen 
where khat is widely used, authorities say.

"What coffee is to Americans is what khat is for Somalis," said Omar Jamal, 
executive manager of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, Minn. 
"The whole thing about khat being addictive is very strange for Somalis. 
It's a completely different frame of thinking."

Community groups say their people are being targeted and are not aware they 
are breaking the law. Police say they are confident immigrants know khat is 

Khat leaves contain cathinone, which is chemically similar to amphetamine. 
The shiny, bright green or reddish-green leaves are sold attached to thin, 
rhubarblike stems. A bundle of 15 to 35 sticks costs about $40 in Columbus. 
Users often brew the leaves or stuff them into their cheeks like chewing 

"Like what you would get from two or three beers -- that little feeling 
that lets people forget problems and troubles," said Ali Sharrif of 
Toronto, who is from Somalia and said he used to chew khat in his homeland. 
"It makes talking and communicating a lot more easier somehow. You feel 
like you are suddenly very, very alert."

Most khat that makes its way to the United States comes from East Africa, 
where it is a major export. Because khat's potency dramatically drops after 
48 hours, it usually is delivered by air express or by courier, law 
enforcement officials say.

According to the DEA, the only known case of khat cultivation in the United 
States was in 1998 in Salinas, where authorities seized 1,076 of the plants.

In Hennepin County, which includes the Minneapolis area, khat-related 
charges have been filed against 10 to 20 people in the past year, said Dan 
Rogan, spokesman for the county attorney's office. St. Paul-Minneapolis has 
the nation's biggest Somali community, estimated at up to 50,000 members.

In Columbus, where community groups estimate there are more than 30,000 
Somalis in the second-biggest concentration in the United States, police 
have seized 860 pounds of khat so far this year. Sgt. Ben Casuccio said 
that in 2001, Columbus police seized 633 pounds. In 2000, they confiscated 
about 8 1/2 pounds.

The number of khat-related charges in Columbus was not available because 
authorities do not classify charges by drug.

Nationally, DEA and Customs officials said they seized about 40 tons in 
2001, more than double the amount confiscated in 1996.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, possession of more than about 45 
pounds of khat is punishable by up 16 months in prison.

New York police have made no khat-related arrests, Detective Walter Burnes 
said. Police in Detroit did not immediately respond to a request for 
numbers of khat arrests and seizures.

Jamal said Minneapolis police have pulled over young Somalis in search of 
khat, which he considers racial profiling. DEA spokesman David Jacobson in 
Detroit said no ethnic community is targeted.

"We need to take a proactive stance on khat because there's a negative 
effect on the user and the family around them," he said.

Maryam Warsame, leader of the Somali Women's Association in Columbus, said 
khat is to blame for the breakup of many marriages.

Men go off to use khat, and "it is the woman who has to stay with the 
children, take care of the house," Warsame said. "And sometimes the 
paycheck does not come home. They have to pay whoever is selling the khat, 
instead of giving it to their family, to their children."
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