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Khat – is it more coffee or cocaine?

In the heart of the Ethiopian community here, a group of friends gathered after work in an office to chew on dried khat leaves before going home to their wives and children. Sweet tea and sodas stood on a circular wooden table between green mounds of the plant, a mild narcotic grown in the Horn of Africa.

As the sky grew darker the conversation became increasingly heated, flipping from religion to jobs to local politics. Suddenly, one of the men paused and turned in his chair. “See, it is the green leaf,” he said, explaining the unusually animated discussion as he pinched a few more leaves together and tossed them into his mouth.

For centuries the “flower of paradise” has been used legally in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as a stimulant and social tonic.

But in the United States khat is illegal, and an increased demand for the plant in cities such as Washington and San Diego is leading to stepped up law enforcement efforts and escalating clashes between narcotics officers and immigrants who defend their use of khat as a time-honored tradition.

In the last few years, San Diego, which has a large Somali population, has seen an almost eight-fold increase in khat seizures. Nationally, the amount of khat seized annually at the country’s ports of entry has grown from 14 metric tons to 55 in about the last decade.

Most recently, California joined 27 other states and the federal government in banning the most potent substance in khat, and the District of Columbia is proposing to do the same.

“It is a very touchy subject. Some people see it like a drug; some people see it like coffee,” said Abdulaziz Kamus, president of the African Resource Center in Washington, D.C. “You have to understand our background and understand the significance of it in our community.”

Increased immigration from countries such as Ethiopia, Yemen and Somalia has fueled the demand in this country and led to a cultural conflict.

“We grew up this way, you can’t just cut it off,” said a 35-year-old Ethiopian medical technician between mouthfuls of khat as he sat with his friends in the office.

In the Horn of Africa and parts of the Middle East, khat is a regular part of life, often consumed at social gatherings or in the morning before work and by students studying for exams. Users chew the plant like tobacco or brew it as a tea. It produces feelings of euphoria and alertness that can verge on mania and hyperactivity depending on the variety and freshness of the plant.

But some experts are not convinced that its health and social effects are so benign. A World Health Organization report found that consumption can lead to increased blood pressure, insomnia, anorexia, constipation and general malaise. The report also said that khat can be addictive and lead to psychological and social problems.

“It is not coffee. It is definitely not like coffee,” said Garrison Courtney, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration. “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’.”

Khat comes from the leaves and stems of a shrub and must be shipped in overnight containers to preserve its potency. It contains the alkaloid cathinone, similar in chemical structure to amphetamine but about half as potent, according to Nasir Warfa, a researcher in cross cultural studies at Queen Mary University of London.

The United Kingdom determined last year that evidence does not warrant restriction of khat. In the United States, the substance has been illegal under federal law since 1993.

But the world supply of khat is exploding. Countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya now rely on it as a major cash crop to bolster their economies. Khat is Ethiopia’s second largest export behind coffee.

Khat usage has grown so much in San Diego that Assemblyman Joel Anderson (R-San Diego) wrote a 2008 bill that added cathinone and its derivative cathine to California’s list of Schedule II drugs along with raw opium, morphine and coca leaves.

As of Thursday, Anderson’s bill made possession of khat a misdemeanor in California, punishable by up to one year in county jail and a $1,000 fine. Possession of the leaf with intent to sell is a felony that carries a three-year maximum sentence in state prison.

In some cases, khat seizures have resulted in warnings and probation. In other instances, like New York City’s “Operation Somali Express” bust in 2006, which led to the seizure of 25 tons of khat worth an estimated $10 million, the perpetrators were sent to jail for up to 10 years.

“In my mind, [such arrests are] wrong,” said an Ethiopian-born cabdriver who was arrested in November in a Washington, D.C., khat bust and spoke on condition of anonymity. “They act like they know more about khat than I know.”

Khat leaves are sold attached to thick stalks or dried like tea leaves. A bundle of 40 leafed twigs costs about $28 to $50.

The plant’s cost has been linked to family problems, including domestic abuse, said Starlin Mohamud, a Somali immigrant who is completing a dissertation on khat at San Diego State University.

In fact, within the East African community in the U.S., there are many who welcome the khat restrictions.

“I have seen what it does,” Mohamud said. “Families who are trying to make ends meet on a daily basis cannot afford it. It just creates so many problems between a husband and wife to the point where a broken family is going to be the result.”

Not all lawmakers, however, support the increased efforts to prosecute khat sellers and users. California state Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Chino) called khat use “a minor problem that may be nonexistent and little understood” and voted against Anderson’s bill.

“The Legislature cannot continue to add on penalties and punishments filling up critically overcrowded prison system without weighing the consequences on how this will affect California,” she said.

Even though khat smuggling continues to grow in the United States, the level is nowhere near that of drugs like marijuana, cocaine, heroine and methamphetamine. Still, law enforcement officials worry that in a refined, stronger and more portable form, khat could spread outside the immigrant communities.

In Israel, a pill known as hagigat (essentially Hebrew for “party khat”), has emerged on the club scene.

Khat – is it more coffee or cocaine?

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Buy Khat seeds and grow your own Khat plants at home.
Khat is a large, slow growing, evergreen shrub, reaching a height of between 1 and 5 metres, in equatorial regions it may reach a height of 10 metres. It is native to East Africa and Arabia, but is now cultivated in many countries throughout Africa. It grows in arid environments, and once established thrives in full sun at a temperature range of 5-35C. It will not usually tolerate frosts, and overwatering will cause it to drop leaves and die. In certain areas it is often grown with coffee plants and in irrigated terraces.

Growing from Khat Seeds
It has been said that Qat is a difficult plant to grow from seed, but we have not experienced any problems germinating this species. Seeds should be planted in either, horticultural sand, cactus compost, vermiculite, or any mix of these three media. It is important that the choice of growing media is very free draining, as Khat seeds are prone to damping off fungus, which will quickly kill small seedlings. Plant the qat seeds about 5mm deep in pots or seed pans, mist the surface until slightly moist, and place in a warm bright place, out of direct sunlight. Mist the surface whenever the soil dries completely. In Summer this may be every day, in Spring it could be every 3 to 5 days. Alternatively, you can water them a bit more thoroughly, and apply Cheshunt Compound with every watering to prevent mould. With both methods, the seeds will probably germinate within a week, if not they may need more/less water, or warmer conditions, or maybe they might just need more time. Once the seeds have germinated avoid direct sunlight. Turn the pots regularly as the seedlings will grow towards the light. Once the seedlings are a 5-10cm tall, they can be transplanted into individual pots.

Potting / Re-potting Khat Plants
We use an equal mix of general purpose house-plant compost and perlite as our potting mix. Perlite provides excellent drainage whilst retaining enough moisture to keep the plant happy. Also, we put a 2cm layer of gravel or broken crocks (terracotta pots) in the base of the pot for extra drainage, and a 1cm layer of cactus top dressing or fish tank gravel on the surface. This helps to prevent the perlite from floating to the surface, cuts down on excessive evaporation, prevents the soil compacting when watering from above, and it looks nice too.

Khat Cuttings
Khat Cuttings are fairly straightforeward, although rarely 100% successful. Cut a 5-20cm length from the tip of the branch. It should be the current years growth, green and pliable, not too woody. Place the cuttings in pots or seed pans, and treat either as freshly germinated seedlings, or freshly transplanted seedlings

Khat is a famous plant from the east of Africa and Arabia. Learn to cultivate your own Khat (or Qat) plants with our seeds!