You better not get caught chewing khat (rhymes with pot) in California.
Last year our governor signed an act to amend the California Health and Safety Code relating to controlled substances. He may have saved you from an uncontrollable urge to eat the fresh leaves of an evergreen shrub that might make you feel social and able to relax.
If you haven't heard of khat it's time to get up to speed. It's on the state misdemeanor list, as of last September. Khat leaves and stems can be chewed or made into a tea.
The “flower of paradise,” one of many nicknames the Arabs use for it, grows in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Khat is legal there. Chewing the emerald leaves of the catha edulis plant reportedly acts as a mild stimulant and makes a person become sociable.
In Yemen, where legend says the first catha edulis bush was brought from Ethiopia by a Sufi mystic in 1429, roughly two-thirds of the arable land is devoted to khat plantations. It is also grown in Kenya and the upper highlands of Somalia.
Khat is not specifically listed in any schedule in the United States. The federal government appears to be treating khat as equivalent to cathinone, one of its chemical constituents, according to a recent U.S. Federal Legal Summary. Cathinone is Schedule I, illegal to manufacture, buy, possess, or distribute (sell, trade or give) without a Drug Enforcement Agency license.
The DEA considers khat “an illegal plant,” but it's important to know that the DEA's views are not law and they do not have the force of law. In two entries in the Federal Register, the DEA mentions khat and their view of its legal status, but in the scheduling of both cathine and cathinone, the DEA chose not to list the plant itself. Thus the plant remains in a legal gray area. Kinda like pot.
Why, you may wonder, is California jumping on the “ban-wagon,” along with 27 other states and the federal government, to make this shrub illegal? Have there been numerous cases of the general public use and abuse? Have crazed khat-heads robbed ATMs to get money for their habit?
No. Khat became an issue because of Somali immigrants to the United States who brought their customs with them. Chewing khat has been acceptable in their culture for a thousand years.
As the Somali population grew, so did the use of bitter-tasting khat. The argument in the U.S. is that it's an addictive habit that the mainstream public may pick up. I find it a stretch of my imagination to see Americans chewing the stuff (it takes hours to work) to get a buzz comparable to the effects of drinking coffee.
Nor can I imagine chewing raw leaves (they have to be 24-hours fresh to work) will ever be popular with people who value their teeth. While in Vietnam, I saw men and women who chewed both beetle nut and khat. Beetle nut made the whole mouth dark red and rotted, and the khat made the teeth brittle and brown with decay.
Reportedly, law enforcement is concerned that a stronger and more portable form of khat could spread from the large Somali immigrant communities like in San Diego and Washington, D.C., and pollute the heartland.
Does that sound familiar? Does it remind you of our first marijuana laws, primarily aimed at a growing Hispanic community in the 1930s? We have now have a law banning another plant for obscure reasons. No one in their right mind could think that a khat chewing craze will take over our country.
There is a pill known as hagigat (more or less Hebrew for “party khat”) that's showed up on the Israeli party scene and a U.S. rave scene. That goes to show anyone can refine plant essences. 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.
Many experts challenge the assertion that khat, also called African Tea or salad, is a problem. Bob Burrows, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Washington, recently told the press, “No one except the U.S. government asserts khat is particularly addictive.” A 2006 World Health Organization study assesses khat's impact as “quite modest,” and concludes that it doesn't merit international control.
In a recent interview, Eric Sterling, president of the nonprofit Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, said, “My understanding of the use of khat is that it should be a very low priority for federal law enforcement. I think the cases are largely a waste of very precious federal criminal justice resources.”
How has this plant, legal in the majority of Western countries, become so feared in 15 years since Somali immigrants first came to the U.S. to escape the ravages of their war-torn country?
As It Stands, I think if tobacco and coffee were newly discovered and brought to us by immigrants, they'd get banned by the DEA.
Posted: 01/25/2009 01:29:26 AM PST