Sociology Mind
2012. Vol.2, No.2, 204-212
Published Online April 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Khat: Is It More Like Coffee or Cocaine?
Criminalizing a Commodity, Targeting a Community
Ezekiel Gebissa
Kettering University, Flint, USA
Email: egebissa@ketter
Received January 4th, 2012; revised February 5th, 2012; accepted M arc h 4th, 2012
This article looks at the expansion of khat chewing from the Horn of Africa to Western countries. It as-
sesses the reaction of various sections of US society toward a practice they perceived as a dangerous new
“drug” and a possible source of funding for terrorist groups by documenting the effect on Oromo immi-
grants of a nationwide crackdown by law enforcement. For the new immigrants, chewing khat provides a
setting that connects them to the homeland and eases the vicissitudes of integration into the host culture,
but the practice is illegal. It also shows how the media and political interest groups have shaped public
perception of chewing khat in a negative light and precipitated the promulgation of hasty policies that
have made Oromo immigrants targets of law enforcement. The article urges users to exercise discretion in
a political environment that is not ready to restore fairness and rationality to policymaking.
Keywords: Cathinone; Drugs; Terrorism; Immigration; Traditional Use; Law Enforcement
In the last two decades, khat1 has migrated from the tradi-
tional use regions in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East to
Western countries. Unlike other psychotropic plants such as
coffee or tea that arrived in the West as commodities, khat was
brought by immigrants from the Horn of Africa, including
many Oromo from eastern Ethiopia, who are active users of the
leaves (Carrier, 2007b; Gebissa, 2010b: p. 609). The introduc-
tion of this new substance has created moral indignation and
political consternation in some countries not just over the po-
tential social harm of what is presumed to be a new “drug” but
also about the impact of immigration on the host societies
(Manghi et al., 2009: p. 4). In the United States, the reaction to
khat has evolved over time from its being viewed as a “strange”
immigrant habit that posed little harm to the host communities,
to its being deemed a “harmful” drug that should be fought as
part of the “war on drugs,” finally to being treated as an illicit
commodity financing terrorism (Carrier, 2007a: pp. 242-245;
Kushner, 2004: pp. 86-94). Swept up in the undiscriminating
dragnet of law enforcement, many Oromo immigrants have
been arrested, convicted, and sentenced to time in prison for
their use of khat (Crenshaw & Burk, 2004: p. 12).
In this paper, I present three settings in which khat plays a
role to illustrate varied perceptions of khat chewing in each
case and show how a traditional cultural practice that offered a
tangible link to the homeland for many Oromos in the diaspora
has caused difficulties of integration into their new sociocul-
tural environment. I begin with khat chewing in the traditional
setting, shift to the new setting in the West, illustrating the re-
action of law enforcement in the United States, and conclude by
highlighting the confusing terrain of scientific knowledge about
khat that gives rise to unfounded popular claims.
In the Traditional Setting
As we know it today, khat chewing started among the urban
residents of the ancient walled city of Harer in eastern Ethiopia,
whence the practice spread to the surrounding Oromo. For the
Muslim Oromo of rural Harerge, khat is valued for its critical
role in such productive activities as work, meditative worship
and cultural ceremonies. Farmers chew it for energy in their
labor-intensive daily activities and religious devotees for all
night sessions of prayer during Ramadan. Khat is also chewed
on such important events as births, marriages, fun erals, and nam-
ing ceremonies. During the festivities of the popular wadaja
ritual—a ceremony of group prayer performed at times of ill-
ness, death, or calamity—large amounts of khat are consumed
by the participants. As such, khat chewing plays an integral role
in Oromo cultural institutions that facilitate social interaction
and cultural integration (Gebissa, 2004: pp. 9-10; 2010a: pp.
75-77; Ahmed, 2010: pp. 16-20).
Among the urban Oromo in many cities and towns in Ethio-
pia, khat is used for recreation, for social pleasure, and as a
medium of social interaction. The barcha, the afternoon chew,
is a popular and commonplace sight in urban centers, where
friends, relatives and acquaintances congregate in a designated
room equipped with chew accessories. Participants lie on their
sides against a pile of cushions to meditate, read and engage in
the talk of the town while chewing khat leaves. Unlike the rural
chew custom, the urban barcha session is often followed by
consumption of alcoholic beverages called chabsii, literally “to
break [the high],” i.e., to counteract the inebriating effects of
khat and allow for sound sleep (Gebissa, 2004: p. 9; Mains,
2010: p. 38).
1Khat is a psychoactive substance that has been chewed in the Horn of Africa and
the Arabian Peninsula for nearly a millennium. The title is adopted from Cynthia
Dizikes, “Khat—is it more coffee or cocaine? The narcotic leaf is a time-honored
tradition in Africa but illegal in the US where demand is growing, Los Angeles
Times, 3 January 2009.
Regardless of where and when they take place, the chew ses-
sions provide the social context in which peaceful and con-
structive interaction occurs. Khat chewing provides individuals
a comfortable atmosphere for conversation and strengthens
social cohesion. It serves as the preferred social lubricant for
fostering comity, cooperation, and conviviality. As a social ins-
titution, the chew session is used to seal important and long-
term contracts such as marriage and enliven the worship prac-
tices of the Muslim population of Harerge (Gebissa, 2010a: p.
75). Emphasizing the critical cultural role and meaning of khat
in Harerge, one historian summed up the rationale for khat chew-
ing as: “the Oromo, the Adere, the Afar and Somali counted
[khat] among the essentials necessary for living, work, and
enjoyment. Guests are welcomed with it; prayers were kept
long and lively with it; in wedding and funeral ceremonies as
well as other social gatherings people were supplied with
bunches of the leaves as a matter of courtesy” (Tafla, 1982: p.
292). In these societies, khat chew sessions continue to have
vital social and cultural functions that create strong bonds
among the participants. Despite serving as such an important
social institution in its traditional setting, khat chewing can
engender fear in outsiders.
Oromos began settling outside their homeland as early as the
sixteenth century, but sizeable diaspora communities began to
emerge only recently. By 1974, according to Mekuria Bulcha
(2002), the number of Oromo refugees in the countries adjacent
to Ethiopia had reached an estimated 60,000. During the period
of the military (derg) rule (1974-1991), drought, famine, civil
wars, and political persecution drove many more Oromos to
refugee camps in Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, and Kenya. In the
1980s, the number of Oromos departing the eastern provinces
of Ethiopia grew steadily as a result of the forced villagization
and resettlement schemes of the derg regime, the Ethio-Somali
War, and successive campaigns against Oromo insurgents (Bul-
cha, 2002: pp. 53-60, 165-173). The exodus continued in the
1990s as human rights violations increased and Oromos settled
in refugee camps in the neighboring countries. The majority of
them happened to be from the khat production and consumption
regions Harerge and Bale. These refugees were eventually re-
settled in Western countries, with considerably large numbers
the United States. The nature of their resettlement allowed the
refugees to have their families join them in the West (Kumsa,
2005: p. 180). Oromo communiti es gradually developed in Min-
neapolis, Washington, Portland, Columbus, Atlanta, Nashville
and several cities in the Great Plains (Getahun, 2006: pp. 128-
In their new milieus, the immigrants endeavored to recreate
the homeland in ways that allowed them to cope with the dep-
redations of adjustment. For those Oromos who came from
Ethiopia’s eastern provinces, khat chew sessions provided a
familiar setting for seeking connectedness, conversation, and
cooperation. The act of chewing fresh khat in a group, sur-
rounded by friends, provided an atmosphere of social harmony
imbued with generosity, pleasure, friendship, and tranquility. It
also offered a chance for connecting to a familiar taste, a com-
fortable atmosphere for counseling on integration into the new
location, and a setting for social interaction, enlivened by remi-
niscences as well as news from home (Hart, 1997; Blount, 1996:
p. 279; Stevenson et al., 1996: p. 80). By the 1990s, regular air
travel to East Africa had made relatively fresh khat available to
the budding immigrant communities in the US (Manghi et al.,
2009: p. 4). What the immigrants deployed as a cultural institu-
tion that actively promoted social integration, a custom as
common as having a cup of coffee, nevertheless set them on
trajectory that clashed with the values, drug laws, and norms of
their new setting (Grayson, 2008: p. 117).
The View from the Road
When khat began to be noticed in the US in the early 1990s,
the reac tion was one of disda in and indifference. Media reports
depicted khat chewing as a strange habit of some Middle East-
ern immigrants whereby people spent a large portion of their
incomes and about a third of their day chewing leaves called
khat (Kwiatkowiski, 1993). The American public was unfamil-
iar with the practice and opinion makers showed little or no
concern about it (Crenshaw & Burk, 2004: p. 12). John Lan-
caster, a reporter of The Washington Post tried some khat and
concluded its effect was too mild to have crossover appeal to
Western users. He described his experience of chewing as fol-
It was an hour into my first khat chew, and so far the ex-
perience had been something of a letdown. I was not euphoric,
or even mildly lightheaded. God was nowhere in sight. The
dominant sensation, in fact, was of sore gums and a painfully
distended cheek. … four hours of masticating what looked like
hedge clippings seemed a high price to pay. From now on, I'm
sticking to beer (Lancaster, 1997: p. B01).
Apparently authorities viewed khat as generally harmless for
the same reasons. The official position of the DEA was that
American users would opt for more potent street drugs than
chewing leaves. Asked about a new “drug” used by young men
in the Minneapolis, a DEA official said: “we don’t really think
that Americans would spend hours chewing leaves to get a mild
rush of euphoria when they could get instant effect from one
gram of amphetamine” (The Drug Connection, 1989). The
agency maintained for a long time that, despite reports of use
by some Caucasians, khat “likely will not become widely po-
pular [in the US] due to its limited shelf life and because sti-
mulant abusers commonly seek more intense physiological effects,
such as those produced by cocaine and methamphetamine”
(DEA, 2003). At the time, it all made sense.2 The apparent lack
of concern of journalists and authorities was shared by the most
xenophobic group called “Friends of the US Border Patrol,”
which otherwise would have been vocal decrying the smug-
gling of khat into the United States. From the group’s perspec-
tive, “the narcotic is an acquired taste and certainly not for an
American palate” (quoted in Carrier, 2007a: p. 244). Official
consensus was apparently that khat was not potent enough for
the least experienced Western user and unlikely to spread to the
general population.
The indifference was nevertheless short-lived. Somalia’s de-
scent into chaos in the early 1990s and the consequent human
suffering brought the Western media to the doorsteps of the
khat culture. In an effort to underscore the horrendous condition
of life in stateless Somalia, reporters depicted khat in rather
ominous terms. In May 1992, the US News and World Report
Heavily armed fighters wander through Mogadishus deso-
late streets, striking elaborate Rambo or Chuck Norris poses
and firing their Kalashnikovs or G-3 rifles from behind shat-
tered walls and doorways. One or two blocks away, their op-
ponents do exactly the same thing. Most of these warriors have
been chewing khat… a leaf containing a mild amphetamine that
2Even in 2000, Stan Skowronski, DEA spokesman in New York was nonchalant
stating c learly that khat “is probably not one of our priorities” (Hays, 2000).
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 205
is smuggled in daily by plane from Kenya (Giradet, 1992: pp.
Reporting from Baidowa an American journalist wrote in
September 1992 describing a scene in refugee camps: “And
through that eerie scene saunter boys and young men, dazed by
an amphetamine-like drug called khat, shouldering weapons
with which they wage battles for control of stolen food and aid
su pplies” (Wallace, 1992: p. 21). The Economist (1992: p. 41)
chimed in depicting Somalia as a wasteland “ruled by roving
gunman in their aviator sunglasses, high on the intoxication of
weed khat.” According to Jonathan Stevenson, khat was the
cause for everything that was wrong in Mogadishu in 1992. He
wrote in the New Republic:
After taking the drug, restless adolescents become more and
more agitated and less and less rational. A drug-conjured in-
sistence on personal supremacy turns pubescent energy into
casual, cheap violence. Raw tempers are released in the form of
reckless driving, senseless arguments, and the playful exchange
of gunfire. Gunshot wounds in Mogadishu. …peak in the early
evening hours, when the young gunmen are at the apex of their
khat sprees. You find easy solutions to all your problems on
khat,” says Mohamed AbshirThe problem is that Somalis
problems are other Somalis (Stevenson, 1992: p. 18).
In early December 1992, the United States deployed its
troops in Mogadishu. There were surprises for American troops.
According to the US New and World Report, the Pentagon was
unprepared for the “khat factor” and did not know how “to
determine what US soldiers ought to do when confronted with
an armed man who has just consumed the equivalent of six
cups of espresso” (US News & World Report 1992). The then
US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa reinforced the confu-
sion by attributing the violence in Somalia to “teenage khat-
chewing Rambos getting pumped up for early evening raids”
(quoted in Carrier 2007b: p. 196). It was no longer a tenable
position for law enforcement in the US to maintain an indiffer-
ent attitude towards khat.
The primary concern of authorities in the early 1990s was the
fear that khat might be another dangerous street drug. Before
khat chewers arrived in American cities in significant numbers,
public opinion had already been shaped by the media to regard
khat chewing as wasteful, hedonistic, and dangerous, and its
chewer as a violent maniac who would stop at nothing to get
his way. As more and more immigrants from the Horn of Africa
arrived in the US, Americans’ legendary anxiety over drug
abuse was compounded by their perennial apprehension over
the impact of immigration.
The Battle of Mogadishu of October 3-4, 1993 in which 18
American servicemen were killed was a key event in crystalliz-
ing the negative public opinion about khat and its chewers in
the US. Americans were shocked by images of Somalis fear-
lessly charging at the heavily-armed American troops and tri-
umphantly dragging the bodies of dead American soldiers in
the streets of Mogadishu. Their apparent inhumanity was read-
ily blamed on the khat the Somali men chewed. At the same
time some Pentagon officials speculated the poor performance
of American soldiers was due to their predilection to experi-
ment with an exot i c drug c a l l e d khat (Mitchell, 2001).
The debacle not only imprinted a very negative image of khat
in the popular imagination but also forced officials of the Drug
Enforcement Agency (DEA), who only a few years prior were
dismissing khat as unappealing to Western users, suddenly to
revise their official stance on khat. On January 14, 1993, the
DEA issued a “final rule” declaring khat “an illegal plant” on
the basis that khat contained cathinone. The Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) also revised its existing advisory to law
enforcement officials to detain any khat plant coming into the
country (Anderson & Carrier, 2006: p. 150; Beckerleg, 2008).
The American public was given another dose of reality that
khat was a dangerous drug with the release of the movie Black
Hawk Down. In the book by the same title, author Mark Bow-
den wrote:
Many Somali men, particularly the young men who cruised
around Mogadishu on technicals,” vehicles with 50-culber
machine guns bolted in the back, were addicted to khat, a mild
amphetamine that looks like watercress. Mid afternoon was the
height of the daily cycle. Most started chewing at about noon,
and by late afternoon were wired, jumpy, and raring to go
(Bowden, 1999: p. 21).
Scenes from the movie presented Somalis as intoxicated by
khat and ready to kill. The alleged link between khat and vio-
lence was further reinforced by a self styled anti-illegal immi-
gration group, “Friends of the US Border Patrol,” which ap-
peared on the internet in 2004. According to Neil Carrier (2007a:
p. 244), this group not only presented khat chewers as obsessed
with violence, with its website featuring a picture of a suppos-
edly khat-crazed Somali militiamen waiting for a wayfarer to
kill, but also explicitly linked khat with illegal immigration.
Referring to Somalia, the piece declares that “the number of
violent and illegal aliens in America at this moment from that
part of the world can be calculated by the amount of this drug
being smuggled into the country (Carrier, 2007a: p. 244).
It is important to note that the DEA’s opinions do not have
the force of law and the FDA’s advisory relates to the detaining
of the substance, not the possessor. Regardless, several states
rushed to pass laws that made the possession of khat illegal
without bothering to acknowledge the khat-cathinone distinc-
tion evident in the federal regulatory rules. In the subsequent
years, many Oromos were arrested for possession of khat and
their cases were brought to trial in many states. Hundreds of
cases resulted in convictions under state laws and many Oro-
mos were sentenced to prison terms.3
When the cases made their way through to the federal courts,
three US Circuit Courts ruled that the khat plant, as opposed to
the cathinone that may be found in it, “[was] not a controlled
substance” because “neither the U.S. Code nor the Code of
Federal Regulations” lists it as such. Some of the chemicals that
are sometimes found in—but not always found in it— are ille-
gal” (Armstrong, 2008: p. 637). The difference is, according to
Sidney L. Moore, a defense attorney specializing in khat cases,
one needs “to chew about 650 lb of khat to squeeze 1 gm of
cathinone out of it” (Gardiner, 2006). That is an impossible task
even for the orally dexterous chewer. As a legal matter, there-
fore, khat itself was not deemed illegal under the jurisdictions
of the courts of appeal that have ruled for the defendants (Sixth
Circuit, 2005; Fourth Circuit, 2005; Second Circuit, 2008).
So what was fueling the determination of US authorities to
continue to prosecute khat chewers? There has never been a
clear-cut case where khat was directly linked to violence4 as a
3Local newspapers report that Oromos were arrested and convicted in several
states: California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnes ota, Missouri, Neb-
raska, New York, Ohio, Penns ylvania, Sout h Dako ta, Tennessee, Texas, Vi rginia,
Washington, Wisconsin, and Washington DC.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
causal agent or any evidence of misuse of khat by the general
public in the West (ACMD 2005: pp. 16-19, p. 28). The con-
cern of law enforcement has been that a stronger and more
portable form of khat could spread from the large immigrant
communities to the host communities (Stancliff, 2009). In this
regard, they were apparently spooked by a pill known as hagi-
gat (more or less Hebrew for “party khat”) that showed up in
2003 in kiosks in Israel (Urquhart, 2005; Crenshaw & Burk,
2004: p. 13; Bentur et al., 2008: pp. 206-210). American au-
thorities viewed the fact that a khat derivative quickly spread
from the Yemeni Jewish groups, where khat chewing had re-
mained confined since the 1950s, to the larger Israeli society to
underscore the possibility that anyone can refine plant essences
relatively easily (Litman et al., 1986). However, as writer Dave
Stancliff (2009) put it, “the effects of this particular party pill
would make our country ’s meth heads laugh. Its potency doesn’t
compare with the cocaine, methamphetamine, and other nasty
drugs on the list.” The assurance of a journalist, however, was
not going to make law enforcement stand down from intensify-
ing what it believed to be a new frontier in the “War on Drugs.”
So is khat more like coffee or cocaine? Opinions vary. Many
experts challenge the assertion that khat represents a new drug
of abuse in the United States. Scott Lukas, director of the be-
havioral and psychopharmacology lab and associate professor
of psychiatry at Harvard University Medical School, is cate-
gorical and definitive that the adverse effects of khat are exag-
gerated. He says:
[khat] has such a low potency that a suitcase full would
probably be enough for one person… because the active ingre-
dients are absorbed rather slowly you do not get huge amounts
of it into the body at once. The way the drug is delivered makes
it very hard for abuse to develop… but the ephedrine-like ef-
fects in khat are closer to Marlboro cigarette than a cup of java.
It’s more like a nicotine patch (Mitchell, 2001).
The scientific consensus is that the effects of khat use cannot
technically be described as addictive and khat is not categorized
as an addiction-producing drug but rather a kind of “cultural
drug dependence” or “drug-facilitated sociability dependence”
(Kennedy , 198 7: p. 210; Ode nwald , 200 7: p. 12). As Shel agh Wei r
(1985: p. 53) long ago pointed out, the popularity of khat and
chewers’ willingness to spend good sums of cash on it rests on
the social and cultural aspects rather than on explanations of
physical addiction.
Social scientists who are familiar with khat and interested in
drug policy formulation are of the view that the law enforce-
ment approach to combat khat was formulated based on a dis-
torted understanding of the chew culture. In the opinion of Bob
Burrows, a professor of Middle East politics at the University
of Washington, “No one except the US government asserts khat
is particularly addictive… Another thing is there is no halluci-
nating. Khat gives a sense of well being. It’s a very social
thing” (Huus, 2007; Stancliff, 2009). This means, khat cannot
deliver the quick and intense experience that the popular street
drugs do in the West. People are “hooked” to the socializing
that accompanies the hours of chewing together rather than the
direct effect of the substance (Weir, 1985: p. 53; Carrier, 2007b:
p. 199; Varisco, 1986: pp. 4-6). That is why, Eric Sterling, pre-
sident of the nonprofit Criminal Justice Policy Foundation,
contests the notion that khat could become a “gateway drug” to
more potent ones or that it could be transformed to yet another
dangerous drug in American streets. He states: “My under-
standing of the use of khat is that it should be a very low prior-
ity for federal law enforcement. I think the cases are largely a
waste of very precious federal criminal ju stice resources” (quote s
from Huus, 2007; Stancliff, 2009).
So why is the government wasting scarce resource on con-
trolling khat? Scott Lukas says it is a lack of understanding of
why people chew khat. He states bluntly that
Khat is non-addictive. The problem with authorities is that
because people who use khat need such a large amount for
themselves, police misinterpret the amount of the substance
seized and think it must be for street sale. That is not usually
the intent. Large amounts of the leaves have to be chewed fresh
or it loses its potency. A pound of chewed khat produces
heightened awareness rather than euphoria (Mitchell, 2009).
For observers of US drug policymaking, the khat case is not
a peculiar one. The US has been passing laws for many decades
banning plants it suspects of potentially becoming an object of
abuse. The reasons are not as benign as Lukas makes them
when he attributes the reaction of US authorities to simple ig-
norance or cultural distance. For instance, the temperance move-
ment and the Prohibition Amendment were in part the result of
public hysteria over the impact of new immigrants from eastern
and southern Europe on the existing culture. In addition, khat
has been swept up in the “war on drugs” for fear that it might
become a new dangerous drug. 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 that must be “nipped at the bud” (Cullen,
2007). This reaction is consistent with the time-honored Ameri-
can anti-immigration hysteria that pops up during difficult times
(Musto, 1999: pp. 294-295; Helmer, 1976).
In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, khat’s
connection to the Horn of Africa has touched off another panic
button of the law enforcement establishment in the US. Au-
thorities increasingly began to tie khat to terrorism. In a testi-
mony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 20, 2003,
Steven C. McCraw, FBI Assistant Director of the Office of
Intelligence remarked:
The Al-Ittihad al-Islami, or AIAI, Somalias largest militant
Islamic organization, is suspected of smuggling an illegal nar-
cotic leaf known as Khat (“cot”) into the United States. Arrests
and shipment seizures indicate a sharp increase in demand for
the drug. Proceeds from East African Khat sales are likely
remitted to Middle Eastern banks via Hawala network and wire
services. It is likely that these funds pass through the hands of
suspected AIAI members and other persons with possible ties to
terrorist groups (McCraw, 2003).
In 2005, Harvey Kushner, director of the criminal justice de-
partment at Long Island University, published a book, Holy
War on the Home Front. He devoted a chapter of his new book
to explaining an alleged connection between khat and terrorism.
He charged that “every law enforcement and drug agency in the
country has missed the Arab-East African drug-smuggling net-
work operating in America (Kushner, 2004: p. 75). His primary
hypothesis was that there were significant linkages between an
illegal khat trade and terrorism but the federal government has
failed to launch a national investigation. Kushner called for
4Alem & Shibre (1997) have repo rted a case where a pati ent killed his wives and
his daughter with khat in his system. Alem et al. (1999) also described a case o
combined homicide and suicide after chewing large amounts of khat. There is
nevertheless no evidence to suggest a causal association between the deaths and
khat use.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 207
congressional investigation into the failure of the homeland
security bureaucracy to give top priority to an estimated $1.5
billion khat smuggling industry into the US, which produces an
illegal cash flow back to Great Britain, Somalia, Kenya and
Yemen (Kushner, 2004: pp. 78-80). In an interview with a CBS
affiliate in New York City, Kushner made his charge explicit:
“You don’t have to make a quantum leap to link drug smug-
gling from the Middle East, to Middle Eastern communities
and …the great possibility of that funding terrorist conspiracies,
both here and abroad” (quoted in Carrier, 2007b: p. 198). It is
of course highly unlikely that a substance that is a legal vegeta-
ble in the UK will be a lucrative business in the US capable of
funding expensive terrorist projects. Kushner nevertheless as-
serted that “Khat and the Holy War on our home front are more
dots federal authorities have failed to connect since 9/11
(Kushner, 2004: p. 94). His book chapter was an attempt to
connect the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, and the opposi-
tion to illegal-immigration, using khat as the case of conver-
gence for all three concerns.
Unbeknownst to Kushner however, federal officials were
actually on the case. On July 26, 2006, the Organized Crime
Drug Enforcement Task Force announced that it had completed
“Operation Somalia Express,” an 18-month investigation of
khat trafficking. It resulted in the indictment of alleged mem-
bers of an international Somali trafficking organization and the
seizure of five tons of khat valued at $10 million. Echoing
Harvey Kushner’s suggested lines of inquiry in their investiga-
tion, Mark Mershon, FBI assistant director in charge of the
operation declared that the profits from the sale of khat were
headed for “countries which are a hotbed for Sunni extremism
and a wellspring for terrorists associated with Al-Qaida” (NY1
News Report, 2006). It all seemed a self-congratulatory exer-
cise, given that the dollar value was off the mark for the amount
of khat seized and also that for Al-Qaeda members transporting
and selling khat is a violation of the Qur’an (Armstrong, 2008:
p. 640). What compels smugglers to engage in high risk activity
must be a low volume, high value commodity, the reward of
which justifies the risk. Khat is bulky. The volatile nature of its
active ingredient increases uncertainty of a handsome return.
The potential reward is not worth the risk. From the vantage
point of US officials, khat had been used by America’s enemies,
such as extremist Somali fighters, and it was not a stretch for
them to make the fight against khat a part of the “war on terror-
ism.” Oddly for federal law enforcement authorities, though,
just months after their much vaunted operation in New York,
Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union banned khat in Mogadishu,
putting federal prosecutors who took up the case on the same
side with the al-Qaida franchise in Somalia (Weinberg, 2006).
Could it be that law enforcement officials in the US were in-
tent on preventing khat from spreading to American streets?
For John Gilbride, head of the New York DEA and a member
of the task force, stopping khat-related crime or preventing khat
from spilling over to the local population did not factor into the
rational e for the massive governme nt operation. He says: “T here’s
no real related spin-off crime (burglaries, robberies, shootings);
it’s traded and consumed in private, not out on the street…
there’s no proof it has spread beyond the small Somali and
Yemeni communities scattered throughout the United States”
(Gardiner, 2006). So what was the purpose of the massive op-
eration? Gilbride’s response is revealing of the mindset of au-
Unlike other drug dealers, none of the khat traffickers who
have been caught had anything to show for it. No boats, no
Escalades, no second homes, no offshore bank accounts, no
bling whatsoever. We know the money from khat sales is not
staying in the US, its leaving. Our task now is to find out
where the money is going (Gardiner, 2006).
Gilbride is aware of khat’s significance in the traditional use
areas. But he says “its’s not his job to sort out the cultural and
historical issues around khat. He’s just supposed to stop it from
getting into the country” (Ibid). It is typical law enforcement
attitude that the government cannot take the risk of deferring to
culture when the issue at hand is “drug runners from an openly
hostile Muslim country taking in millions, with nothing, osten-
sibly, to show for it” (Ibid). Khat became a part of the “war on
Any consideration that khat might be a local custom for the
new immigrants was jettisoned. In 2007, DEA official re-
It is not coffee. It is definitely not like coffee. 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 height-
ened sense of invincibility, and when you look at those effects,
you could take out the word khat and put in heroin or co-
caine’” (Dizikes, 2009).
In the opinion of Judge John D. Holschuh of the Sixth Cir-
cuit Court of Appeals, “there is absolutely no evidence that the
khat plant with its cathinone and cathine ingredients presented a
significant problem to the population of the United States”
(quoted in Armstrong, 2008: p. 641) Many experts maintain
that there is no evidence that its appeal extends beyond the
immigrant communities. Peter Reuter, a professor at the Uni-
versity of Maryland’s department of criminology, states that
khat “is a very culturally spec ific drug. It’s so hard to think that
there’s a great public issue here. It’s not that khat has become
the new yuppie drug… It’s got no cachet” (quoted in Huus,
2007). His informed opinion is no consolation for the Oromo
and other immigrants who came from the countries where khat
was used for centuries and now finding themselves up against
the hard line position taken by the authorities of their new
country. But drug laws have always been used in the United
States to control new immigrants (cf. (Musto, 1999: pp.
294-295; Helmer, 1976).
In an Ambiguous Setti ng
The federal laws that apply to khat are ambiguous. In the ab-
sence of a clear case of controlling legal authority, states have
enacted various laws. Just as a legal vegetable in the UK be-
comes a Schedule I controlled substance somewhere midway
across the Atlantic, people have to navigate through a patch-
work quilt of laws traveling across the US. Oromo immigrants
found themselves caught up in the complexities of US laws. In
2009, when several local residents in South Sioux City, Ne-
braska, were arrested for possession of khat the news came as a
surprise to the community (Sioux City Journal, 2008).
Accordingly, in October 2009, Midhaqsa D. Gada, an Oromo
resident of South Sioux City, was pulled over for traffic viola-
tions by a South Sioux City police officer. In the search that
ensued, police allegedly found khat in his vehicle and he was
charged with felony drug possession. Under Nebraska law,
possessing khat is a class IV felony punishable by up to five
years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Faced with this prospect,
Midhaqsa entered into a plea agreement. He was subsequently
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
sentenced in Dakota County District Court. Under the terms of
the agreement, prosecutors agreed to ask the court to sentence
Midhaqsa to 24 months of probation, a $1000 fine, $500 resti-
tution to the county. They also recommended that he be sen-
tenced to perform 100 hours of community service and obtain a
substance-abuse evaluation (Montag, 2010).
Earlier in February of the same year, Harun Geno, another
Oromo from South Sioux City, and his friends were charged
with three other people for illegal drug possession after a Ne-
braska State Trooper reportedly discovered khat in their vehi-
cles during a series of traffic stops in South Sioux City. Court
documents show that the trooper found packaged khat hidden
under the front seat of all of the vehicles of the defendants. In
fact, court documents state that Harun was chewing khat when
he was pulled over and when asked what he was chewing on,
he told the trooper it was “cooked cabbage” (Montag, 2010).
An interesting dimension to the South Sioux City situation is
that khat was brought to the attention of the authorities by
members of the community. Landlords reportedly started find-
ing dried-out khat left behind when some Oromo and other
tenants from the Horn of Africa moved out of their homes and
apartments and reported their “discovery” to police. By 2009,
the Horn of Africa community had been growing in the greater
Sioux City area for some time. Their presence was made ap-
parent by a number of African restaurants, grocery stores and
related businesses. One cannot tell whether it was the khat or an
aversion to the lifestyle of the immigrants that motivated the
landlords to report their finding to the police (Ibid).
According to Sgt Chernock of the South Sioux City police,
his questions about khat “were met with a surprise by the im-
migrant community.” At first, says Chernock, “[the immigrants]
didn’t seem to think it was anything to be upset about. They
couldn’t understand why we were interested in it.” Officer Matt
Hattermann, a drug recognition expert of the police department,
suggests that the immigrants “got away with khat possession at
first by telling police it was tea. Now that officers know what it
is, and word has gotten out that khat is illegal here” (Ibid).
From the immigrants’ perspective, describing khat as tea may
not have been meant to be evasive, as Hattermann claims. Re-
ferring to tea presents a comparison with the closest familiar
thing the Americans could understand. Users found no need to
be evasive about a substance that had always been legal and
part of their culture.
In an interview with the local media, Edris Genemo, presi-
dent of the Siouxland Oromo Community Association, spoke
for many of his compatriots when he said:
Growing and using khat isnt merely legal in many East Af-
rican countries, its also one of the regions cash crops. Its
grown in every garden. Many East African immigrants are
surprised to learn khat is illegal here because it is treated as
food or drink, not an illicit drug, in the part of the world they
come from. Its chewed on a daily basis and considered on par
with food or drink. People use it to pass the time or something
nice to offer visitors or guests. Everybody, they use (khat). Its
not illegal (Ibid).
Before coming to the United States several years ago, Edris
worked for Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture. He told a local
newspaper reporter that:
Khat [is] one of the countrys chief exports. There is even a
union for workers who tend the plants in the thousands of acres
of khat grown commercially in farm fields. The Ethiopian gov-
ernment actually profits by taxing the sale and export of khat,
which growers cant send overseas without getting government
permits or licenses” (Ibid).
In his new country of residence, however, possession of khat
is a serious violation of the law. Edris’s organization endeavors
to warn new arrivals not to use khat in Siouxland, because they
could be arrested and sent to jail.
Many Oromos have been arrested and their cases brought to
trial across the US. In January 2006, Abdi Abdurahman Yousuf
and Mulata Y. Ali, both of South Sioux City were charged for
possession of khat. They were arrested with Jemal Mohamed
Farah of Minneapolis after Ibsa Abdullahi, a roommate of Abid
and Mulata, made a complaint with the police department that
khat could be found in the apartment (Ebaugh, 2006;). In the
first case to go on trial, the defendant was acquitted. Sarah
Walters, the jury forewoman, explained the reason for the
jury’s not guilty verdict as follows. “The judge’s instructions
were very clear and this didn’t meet the criteria to convict. It
said he had to knowingly possess seven grams of cathinone,
and clearly there wasn’t that much there. It’s not even clear if
he knew there was any left [in the leaves]” (Ebaugh, 2006).
In August 2008, Tola Hassan of Richfield and Mohamed
Ibro of Brooklyn Center, both of Minnesota, were charged in
Sioux Falls, South Dakota, “in connection with the seizure of a
large quantity of an African drug that produces a high similar to
methamphetamine. They were arrested after an investigation
involving local, state and federal authorities” (Sioux City Jour-
nal, 2008). At trial, Tola Hassan was “found guilty of possess-
ing and intending to distribute khat, a drug that contains a
stimulant similar to meth” (Dunsmor, 2009).
The difference in outcome of the two cases results from how
each case is defined by prosecutors and the clarity of instruction
given by the judge. Whenever the case was about the defendant
having knowledge of the khat plant containing cathinone, the
scheduled substance according to US laws, the prosecution
invariably found it difficult to convince the jury of the defen-
dant’s intent. In such cases, the court proceedings ended with
acquittals or dismissals. If the trial was about possessing khat
itself with the intent to distribute, in most cases, the defendant’s
attorneys failed to mount a successful defense.
All this emanates from ambiguous state of knowledge about
khat and the confusing language used by federal agencies in
connection with khat. To comply with UN Convention on Psy-
chotropic Drugs of 1971, on May 17, 1988, the US Department
of Health and Human Services added cathine to the federal
register of controlled substances (Federal Register vol. 53, reg.
at 17459). On January 14, 1993, the DEA added cathinone to
the federal register of controlled substances (Federal Register
vol. 58, reg. at 4316). The rule did not explain the nature of the
link with khat, but the Supplementary Information appended to
the rule does describe the connection between khat and cathi-
none as: “When khat contains cathinone, khat is a Schedule I
substance. When khat does not contain cathinone, but does
contain cathine, khat is a Schedule IV substance” (Federal Reg-
ister vol. 58, reg. at 4317). The rules themselves were later
published in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), but the
supplementary information was never formally incorporated
into the rules, and, thus, no reference to khat appears in the
CFR. The DEA chose both times not to list the plant itself as
scheduled substance and thus the plant remains in a legal grey
area, even though the DEA considers khat an “illegal plant.” By
conflating khat with its alkaloids, US authorities have trans-
formed a substance the Oromo immigrant communities viewed
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 209
as more akin to espresso coffee into a dangerous drug on par
with cocaine, LSD, or ecstasy (Renteln, 2009: p. 75).
Media representations have done their share to add to the
confusion surrounding khat’s effects. There is clear progression
of khat from being viewed as a desirable activity to a benign
habit to a deadly drug in its representation and in popular per-
ception. In one of the earliest reports on khat, Lucy Howard and
Gregory Cerio (1992: p. 4), likened khat’s effects to caffeine’s.
A few years later, Stephanie Siek (2002) reported that khat has
the same effect as drinking “two or three beers.” Later in the
year, the Associated Press reported that khat is “considered
slightly less potent than marijuana.” By 2006, perceptions had
begun to change. Tom Downey of the New York Time s traveled
to Yemen to learn about khat first-hand. He concluded that khat
“induces mild euphoria” (Downey, Dec. 10, 2006). Sherry Wil-
liams (2006), a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch observed
that east Africans considered chewing khat to be “much like
drinking a couple of cups of coffee.” The following year a re-
porter of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation noted that
khat reportedly produced “a very mild cocaine or amphetamine
high,” quoting the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (CBC, Jan.
26, 2007; RCMP, 2005, 22). According to an Associate Press
(January 11, 2007) report, khat “produces cocaine-and mor-
phine-like effe c t s. ”5
The scientific literature does not clarify the confusion. The
list of ailments attributed to khat chewing gives one the impres-
sion that no part of the human body, from the hair to the toes,
escapes the dangerous effects of the evil leaves of the cursed
tree. It is claimed that khat affects the nervous, digestive, respi-
ratory, reproductive, cardiovascular systems, and other func-
tions of the human body (Cox & Ramps, 2003: p. 460). But the
scientific evidence is tentative with regard to khat’s pharma-
cological effects and certainly more nuanced than the propo-
nents of prohibition make it out to be. With regard to khat’s
effect on the human reproductive system, for instance, some
studies suggest that it affects all semen parameters and pro-
duces abnormalities in sperm morphology (Islam et al., 1990;
El-Shoura et al., 1995). Others show that khat actually stimu-
lates sperm production, and had no deleterious effect on the
testis (Al-Mamary et al., 2002). More recently, it was shown
that some of the active chemicals in khat strengthened the
sperm, suggesting that they may enhance natural fertility (Ade-
oya-Osiguwa & Fraser, 2005). In addition there is some, albeit
inconclusive, evidence of khat as an aphrodisiac (Al Motarreb
et al., 2002).
When it comes to the effect of khat chewing on oral health,
the literature is not just inconclusive but also contradictory.
Based on the length of time that khat quid remains in the mouth
and the usually discolored teeth of chewers, many suggest that
khat-chewing must be detrimental to oral health. But studies
conducted in Yemen and Kenya show the prevalence of dental
and periodontal diseases was generally lower among khat-
chewers than non-chewers. Interestingly, the studies showed
si gnificantly lower periodontal and dental diseases in the chewing
sides of the mouth of chewers, suggesting that khat had a bene-
ficial effect on the chewing side or an adverse effect on the
nonchewing side (Hill & Gibson, 1987; Jorgensen & Kaimenyi,
1990; Al-Hebshi & Skaug, 2005). The studies conclude that the
oral hygiene status of khat chewers was generally better than
that of non-chewers and there was no evidence to show that
chewing is detrim ental to periodontal health.
Similar inconsistencies exist in the studies on the effect of
khat chewing on mental health. Some studies maintain that khat
causes psychological disturbances (Alem & Shibre, 1997). Others
acknowledge that khat chewers suffer mental disorders but see
no direct association between chewing and any form of psycho-
sis (Kalix & Braenden, 1985). This means the cause of the dis-
orders could be attributed to a host of other factors besides khat
chewing. Many scholars working in this area concede that it is
extremely difficult, if not impossible, to establish a cause and
effect relationship between khat and mental disorder based on
surveys and observations which suggest multifactorial genesis
of psychosis (Warfa, Bhui, & Craig, 2006; Warfa et al., 2007;
Odenwald, 2007).
Looking through a glass darkly, law enforcement has decided
to come down on the more definitive side of including khat in
the more familiar terrain of drugs of abuse rather than leaving
ambiguity. The dominant view in the US today is that khat
possession is a criminal act. Some of those caught in this snare
of a confused system were able to mount their legal defense
claiming that a layman would not know that the chemicals
listed in the schedules were constituents of the khat in his/her
possession or whether he or she knows the amount of the con-
trolled substance in the leaf (Renteln, 2004: p. 75). As noted,
the Second, Fourth and Sixth Circuit Courts have sided with the
appellants citing that the khat plant is not specified as a con-
trolled substance by any law. These rulings did not stop the
DEA from detaining unsuspecting immigrants coming into the
US. In some cases, passengers caught with khat, including
British citizens of non-Horn of Africa origins, have been de-
ported under a plea agreement with prosecutors (Daugherty,
2010). Many settled immigrants are serving their sentences in
prison with no hope of reuniting with their families when they
had served out their time.
Despite the legal difficulties, khat plays an important role for
some Oromo immigrants in the West. The chewing sessions,
associated with sociable, loquacious, and recreational experi-
ences, provide a setting that transports them back to their coun-
try of origin. It connects them with people who are familiar
with their way of life and as such eases the trauma of disloca-
tion and integration into the new cultural milieu. It requires a
serious study to determine whether khat chewing among the
Oromo is declining, holding steady, or rising. But one can
speculate that, because of the benefits of socializing the chew
sessions offer, khat is likely to continue to be used by many
people in the Oromo diaspora communities.
Just as chewing coca leaves is different from taking pure co-
caine, chewing khat has a more gentle effect than would be the
case taking isolated cathinone. US laws make a distinction with
regard to coca leaves and cocaine but the same standard does
not apply to khat. Powerful cultural and political forces have
coalesced to create a political environment in which legislation
and policies are formulated based on emotion rather than em-
pirical facts. The political environment is therefore not condu-
cive for a more rational and uniform national law to be insti-
tuted as long as the US policy gives a priority to the “war on
drugs” and the “war on terror” and immigration concerns re-
main high on the minds of voters and elected officials. Operat-
5The references were assembled and shown in a table by Armstrong (2008:
635). I track them down to the sources for conte xt and m eani ng.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
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enforcement officials will adopt an individualized approach to
dealing with various cases. The new immigrants are challenged
to find other venues than the khat chew sessions to connect to
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