Three Maasai men sit near the back of an open-air restaurant and nightclub outside Bisil, Kenya, a small town about 100 kilometers south of Nairobi. A pile of small leafy sticks rests on the table in front of them.
“This thing brings people together,” said Simon Suyiaka, 25, gesturing toward the twigs. “You have all kinds of friends, from lower class to upper class. Because we all chew.”
He’s talking about khat, a stimulant common in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, better known in Kenya as miraa.
“You become very alert,” Suyiaka said. “People take it to drive at night, or just to kill time.”
His friend, Kispan, 33, wears a traditional orange Maasai blanket over western-style clothes. “Maybe I take it before I go to a meeting,” Kispan said. “We don’t see it as a drug.”
The men remove the leaves from the stem, then strip the bark with their teeth, adding to a wad in their cheeks. From time to time Suyiaka adds small chunks of chewing gum to cut the bitterness, while Kispan uses peanuts for the same purpose.
Khat (Catha edulis) is harvested in the mountain regions of central Kenya, as well as in Ethiopia, Yemen and other countries in the region. It can grow as a shrub or a tree, shooting out small branches that are harvested multiple times per year. Locally, bundles of leafy twigs wrapped in banana tree fiber are sold out of one of many identical wood clapboard shops along the roadside. The leaves are soft and fresh, and the shopkeeper says it comes straight from Mt. Meru.
The signs posted around the restaurant are clear: “Usikule Miraa” — no chewing miraa. It’s banned not because of any ill effects, but because customers who are chewing are liable to sit for hours without purchasing anything. The group says they’ve been given special permission because the restaurant owners know they will spend money on drinks as they chew away the night. Suyiaka sips a soda to supplement the stimulant with caffeine; Kispan, a cup of coffee.
The men chew for several hours in front of a growing pile of leaves and stripped stems. They chat gregariously, then fall silent for stretches of time. They describe the effects of the plant as they retreat into their thoughts: “Sometimes you see yourself owning a jet,” said Suyiaka. “Sometimes you see yourself not even owning a bicycle.”
“You build castles in the air,” said Kispan. “Another kind, you eat it, you feel a lot of fear.”
Sometimes it makes them forgetful, asking where their cigarette is at the very moment they smoke one.
Mostly, it’s a way to pass the time.
“We just sit down and chew it,” Kispan said. “We don’t have conflicts. And we leave as friends.”
In contrast to the laid-back Kenyan scene, khat is illegal in the United States, caught up in a dragnet of policies of both the War on Terror and the War on Drugs. Its primary active component, cathinone, a relative of amphetamine and caffeine, is a Schedule I controlled substance.
It’s still available, tacitly. Ace Jiru, 25, is Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. He’s lived in Minnesota since 2000 after immigrating with his family. Most Oromos he knows in the U.S. don’t chew it, he says. He explains that this is because it is illegal and expensive — and therefore difficult to acquire — and some people are happy to leave the habit behind to focus on working hard and building a new life. But East African groups living in Minnesota can still find khat if they want it.
“Despite the ban, khat still makes it to where these communities cluster and people do acquire and enjoy the euphoria,” Jiru said.
The illegal status can come as a surprise. A 2010 story in the South Sioux City Journal about an Ethiopian community in Nebraska details how at least five people were arrested over a few months for possessing khat. When they learned the drug was illegal, they were shocked, said one community member, because it was considered on par with food and drink, not drugs, in Ethiopia.
Arrests appear to be on the rise. After a decade of no khat busts on the West Coast of the U.S., over 60 have occurred since 2013, involving tens of thousands of pounds. A series of seizures at Philadelphia airport last year resulted in the confiscation of several hundred pounds. And a major operation in New York last June resulted in the arrest of 17 individuals “who allegedly flooded New York City” with multiple tons of khat.
The numbers back up the perception of an increase in law enforcement activity. Khat busts at U.S. ports of entry have risen in recent years, according to data provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Between 2003 and 2008, there was an average of 4,428 incidents in which 28,9742 pounds of khat were confiscated at the borders annually. From 2009 through 2013, the average climbed to 13,026 incidents involving 82,947 pounds per year. Customs did not respond to questions about what accounted for the increase in seizures.
Internationally, khat has spotty legal status. Cathinone is a Schedule I substance under the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances, which restricts international trade, however in its commentary the Convention notes that it “does not apply to plants as such from which substances in Schedule I may be obtained.” The plant is illegal in a number of European countries and a handful of other nations. Last year, the United Kingdom instituted a prohibition despite a recommendation against it by the nation’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
There is slim justification for a ban based on health or public safety. As opposed to the quick high delivered by many Western street drugs, khat takes hours of work to deliver its stimulative effects. A 2007 report by La Revue de Santé de la Méditerranée orientale reviewing numerous previous studies found that it could be implicated in various ailments like high blood pressure and minor digestive issues, and can aggravate disturbances in psychotic patients. Rather than being physically addictive, the drug can cause “psychic dependence,” with minor withdrawal symptoms. Other studies have found limited evidence of any direct effect on people’s health and well-being.
Instead, the basis of prohibition appears political. When khat use in the United States first became visible in the early 1990s, reaction by the public, as well as the DEA, was one of “disdain and indifference,” according to a study by Ezekiel Gebissa, professor of history at Kettering University. However, the image shifted dramatically following sensationalist reporting from the Somali Civil War which depicted crazed, bloodthirsty khat-chewing teenagers killing each other and, more notably, American soldiers during the Battle of Moghadishu. In 1993, the DEA declared that khat was “an illegal plant,” finalizing its place on Schedule I.
The attitude has persisted. A DEA spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times in 2009, “It is the same drug used by young kids who go out and shoot people in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is something that gives you a heightened sense of invincibility, and when you look at those effects, you could take out the word ‘khat’ and put in ‘heroin’ or ‘cocaine’.”
Gebissa also notes an anti-immigrant streak reminiscent of the early 20th century alcohol prohibition as a reaction against newcomers from eastern and southern Europe. Most khat users are African and Middle Eastern, and many are Muslim — the same population scrutinized in the War on Terror.
“Because khat accompanied new immigrants from those areas of the world that most Americans view with deep suspicion or at least are less familiar with, a legal vegetable in other Western countries has been made a major threat to society,” Gebissa wrote.
Loss of access to khat strips immigrants of an important part of their culture, the professor argues.
“The act of chewing fresh khat in a group, surrounded by friends, provided an atmosphere of social harmony imbued with generosity, pleasure, friendship, and tranquility,” he wrote. “It also offered a chance for connecting to a familiar taste, a comfortable atmosphere for counseling on integration into the new location, and a setting for social interaction, enlivened by reminiscences as well as news from home.”
Instead, immigrants must either drop the habit, or face jail time. “Criminalizing people for using khat is not only counterproductive, but does more harm than good,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, noting that people accustomed to khat but denied it might turn to more dangerous synthetic cathinone, better known as bath salts.
Unlike cannabis, which has been the subject of an ongoing and incrementally successful lobby toward legalization, khat has been largely ignored by activists. It may be because the population that uses it is largely off the radar, has little wealth or political clout and has a lot to lose if they end up on the wrong side of the criminal justice system.
“There’s obviously a demand,” Smith said, “but the criminal repercussions are so harsh there’s a great desire to be very private about it.”
The DEA did not respond to inquiry about any potential relaxation of khat restrictions.
And some East African immigrants are in favor of prohibition. Rilwan Osman, executive director at the Somali Bantu Youth Association of Maine, said she supports the ban because khat can be a drain on men’s time and money.
“Back home, if a man uses that, it’s normally in a restaurant, or someone’s house, and he spends the whole night there,” said Osman, 30, who grew up in a refugee camp in Somalia and came to the United States a decade ago. “They will feel disconnected from their children and families.”
Osman continued, “I feel that, in this country, you need to work for your kids to be successful. This [khat] takes you away from all those things.”
For better or worse, the ban is here for the foreseeable future.
“Powerful cultural and political forces have coalesced to create a political environment in which legislation and policies are formulated based on emotion rather than empirical facts,” Professor Gebissa wrote. “The new immigrants are challenged to find other venues than the khat chew sessions to connect to their home while doing more to integrate into their new settings.”