Pubdate: Wed,  4 Jun 2003
Source: Scotsman (UK)
Copyright: The Scotsman Publications Ltd 2003
Contact:  http://www.scotsman.com/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/406
Author: Tasha Kosviner

MY DATE WITH MR MURUNGI

With a smile, Ali told me that it would be the trip of a lifetime. 
Unforgettable. The room fell silent as he spoke, the men at the tables 
watched as he spelled out the details of the deal. All I had to do was 
travel to New York with two suitcases, check into a first-class hotel and 
wait for the pick-up. I was to be paid a fee and expenses to cover airfares 
and the hotel. As soon as the consignment was collected, I could do as I 
liked. "Enjoy yourself," Ali said, smiling again.

We were in a shabby room overlooking a London high street. Around 20 men 
were sitting on sofas and at tables - watching and, it seemed, willing me 
to accept Ali's illegal proposal. They all knew what the suitcases would 
contain.

The stuff was all around us, and I could see what it was doing to the men 
who were chewing it. Their eyes were glazed, bloodshot. Some were animated, 
others seemed stupefied. These are the visible effects of the drug they 
call murungi. The hidden effects can be terrifying.

Murungi is a potent form of khat, or qat - a leaf which, when chewed and 
absorbed into the bloodstream, produces a sense of well-being and boundless 
energy. In high doses it can cause hallucinations, paranoia and madness. 
Ali, who wanted me to smuggle two cases of it into America - where it is 
banned as a dangerous narcotic - is London's Mr Murungi. He operates from a 
place they call Cafe Buz in Old Southall. It is one of several murungi dens 
in this area, where men come to buy the drug and sit around for hours, 
chewing and getting high.

Some well-intentioned community workers say the leaf is part of the culture 
of certain ethnic minorities, especially those from eastern Africa and 
Yemen. Muslims use it as a substitute for alcohol, they say. According to 
the benign view of murungi, it is relatively harmless and it is not banned 
in Britain. But there is a growing body of opinion that says murungi is a 
pernicious drug that takes an appalling toll on those who use it. The World 
Health Organisation has ordered a study of its effects after worrying 
reports from medical authorities.

London has become the hub of an illicit international trade. The leaves are 
grown in Kenya and Ethiopia and flown into Heathrow daily.

One of the biggest importers was Amarjit Chohan, the Asian businessman 
whose body was found floating off Bournemouth pier last month. He had been 
murdered. His wife Nancy, mother-in-law Charanjit Kaur and two infant sons 
are still missing, presumed dead.

Chohan brought large quantities of murungi into Britain through his 
company, and there are suspicions that his murder and the disappearance of 
his family are connected to drug dealing. One man has been charged with his 
murder and two others are being hunted by police.

Smuggling murungi into the United States is a major growth area among 
narcotics dealers. In 1992 US customs seized 800kg. In 2001 they seized an 
astonishing 37 tonnes - a 5,000 per cent increase. In America, where its 
use is spreading beyond minority ethnic groups to college kids and the 
ghettos, it commands a street price that makes it a highly lucrative 
commodity for smugglers - men like Ali.

Ali was described to me as the man who knew everything about importing and 
exporting murungi. When we met he was relaxed and friendly and keen to 
recruit me into what he said was his team of couriers. We talked at Cafe 
Buz, where he is a respected figure; around 25 years old, well-dressed and 
charming, he stands out among the sad-looking characters chewing themselves 
into a stupor.

Ali claimed he made regular murungi deliveries all over the United States. 
In Britain it is prized for its affordability - around 10 for a handful of 
leafy stalks, enough for a 24-hour "buzz" - but in America its illegality 
makes it more expensive. The Drugs Enforcement Agency estimates the street 
price at up to $50 - around 30 for a bunch.

"I use four to five different airlines to fly the stuff to the United 
States," Ali said. "I want you to go to New York. How would you like to 
spend two nights in Manhattan?"

He laughed expansively. He said he sends five people a week across the 
Atlantic, and he outlined the type of person he requires for the job. "You 
have to be British with a British passport," he said. "I like using young 
people like yourself because they look confident and innocent. You must 
dress well, wear a suit and do not be afraid. You will not be stopped. I 
have many people doing this for me. You can meet them if you wish."

It was obvious from his relaxed manner that Ali felt secure in the fastness 
of Cafe Buz, surrounded by his friends. Some suck on shisha pipes and a 
sign, hung among the African tapestries on the wall, reads: "VIP Lounge. 
Minimum charge 7". At 5 a bunch for the best Ethiopian murungi, flown in 
fresh to Heathrow, VIP status comes cheap at Cafe Buz. This is one of the 
reasons the drug is causing such concern.

One of Ali's associates joins the discussion, saying: "You will fly to New 
York tomorrow. You will stay two nights or more if you wish. Then you will 
fly home. If you like it, you can tell your friends and they can go too."

But what about the risk? "We lose maybe only one per cent of the suitcases 
that we send to America," Ali said smoothly. "And even then, they will not 
arrest you. If they find what is in the cases they will take the cases and 
throw them away and they will send you back to England. But you will not be 
arrested."

Really? Are the notoriously stringent US customs officers so relaxed in 
their attitude to murungi?

Of course they are not. DEA spokesman Will Glaspy tells me: "There are two 
substances in khat which are classified as controlled substances in the 
United States. These are cathinone and cathine. If we were to find someone 
bringing two cases of khat into the country they would almost certainly be 
arrested.

"There is no maximum sentence for this offence. For some drug offences here 
you can be sentenced to life imprisonment."

While it is unlikely that a young person, offending for the first time, 
would receive such a penalty, smuggling murungi into the United States 
could still be disastrous for such a "mule", as couriers of banned 
substances are known.

There was a whiff of the underworld about the enterprise when Ali gave me 
my instructions: "I will call you tomorrow and tell you where to meet me. 
You will not come here again - I do not want your face to be known. When 
you get the call you will put on a suit, take some nice clothes for your 
holiday and come to meet me. We will then take you to Heathrow. When you 
get to America someone will collect the bags. They will pay for the hotel - 
two days - and take the bags from you.

"They will also give you 250 spending money. Don't worry about it. You 
won't get caught. I have been sending people to America like this for ten 
years." He smiled again and put his hand on my arm. "You can trust me," he 
said.

Despite claims in some quarters that murungi is little more than a mild 
stimulant, it is illegal not just in the US but most of Europe. And 
community leaders among the ethnic groups that use it say it is dangerous.

Dr Iain Murray-Lyon, a gastroenterologist at London's Charing Cross 
Hospital, has studied the effects of the generic leaf, khat, on long-term 
users. He says: "There are some reports of people becoming psychotic with 
heavy use, although that's rare. I had one patient who was a Yemeni student 
and a heavy user, and was in a schizophrenic state. He was paranoid and 
quite illogical and had all sorts of delusional ideas. He was immediately 
committed under the Mental Health Act."

A spokesperson for the drugs charity Drugscope describes khat as "a 
stimulant drug with effects similar to amphetamine. Chewing it makes people 
feel more alert and talkative and suppresses the appetite, although users 
describe an ensuing calming effect when used over a few hours.

"Regular use may lead to insomnia, anorexia and anxiety. In some cases it 
may make people feel more irritable and angry and possibly violent. 
Psychological dependence can result from regular use, so that users feel 
depressed and low unless they keep taking it."

This is what makes murungi so dangerous, according to Hassan Isse of the 
Somali Khat Project - set up to try to protect users from the ill-effects 
of the drug. In Somalia, he says, khat leaves are chewed as a recreational 
and social stimulant. But in Britain expatriates abuse it and end up 
mentally ill.

"In some parts of London five or six out of every ten people in mental 
health units are Somalis," he says. "Most of their problems are linked to 
khat. And the trouble is that when they come out of the units there is no 
programme to help them. So, a year later, they are straight back in."

The worrying trend is that murungi use is beginning to spread beyond the 
ethnic groups to young people, for whom it provides a cheap fix. One 
19-year-old tells me: "You start chewing at three in the afternoon and 
you're still going 24 hours later."

Drug workers estimate there are around 1,000 shops selling khat leaves, 
including murungi and the less potent hereri, in London. Tonnes of it 
arrive fresh at Heathrow every day. As Ali explained to me, there is no 
shortage of supply. I said I would consider his offer and we parted at Cafe 
Buz. In the street, a group of men lounged listlessly, their eyes 
bloodshot, telltale green flecks at the corner of their mouths. Here, and 
on the other side of the Atlantic, people like this are making Ali rich - 
certainly rich enough to tempt young women into risking their liberty to 
undertake a "trip of a lifetime".

Khat Facts

Origins

Khat, from the Catha Edulis tree, originated in Ethiopia and spread to 
Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Arabia, the Congo, Zimbabwe, Zambia, 
Madagascar, South Africa and Yemen. Much of the khat consumed in Britain 
comes from Kenya and Ethiopia.

Cultivation

Khat is harvested in small quantities throughout the year - it loses 
potency if stored for any great length of time. It requires no fertiliser 
and thrives when interplanted. Khat's dependence on water has actually 
facilitated technological advancements in the areas where it is grown, 
especially Yemen.

Usage

The first recorded usage of khat comes in 13th-century literature from the 
Arabian Penisular. It was prescribed by physicians to treat depression and 
general lack of energy, and also for malaria and chest infections. Khat was 
utilised by peasants and soldiers to increase their working or fighting 
capacity through its stimulant effects. After the US Army's 1993 debacle in 
Mogadishu, some military sources commented on the usage of Khat by 
militiamen fighting for Somalian warlords, saying it increased their 
bravery and pliability.

Economics

Khat has been cited as a major problem for the economies of Ethiopia, 
Yemen, Djibouti and other countries, partly because, it is suggested, 
nearly every family spends one third of its disposable income on the drug. 
A further problem with khat is the "Mafia-like" control over production and 
distribution. For example, in 1983, then-Somali president Siad Barre banned 
khat and called for food crops. However, the ban was repealed in 1990, 
apparently after the khat trade had been placed in the hands of his 
administration, triggering accusations that such a transfer of control had 
been the intent of the ban in the first place.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens