KHAT TALES: TROUBLE BREWS OVER SOMALIS' FAVOURITE DRUG
Chewing It 'Like Drinking Coffee After A Meal Here In Canada,' One User Says
Tucked away in the backroom of a restaurant in Toronto, a group of Somali friends gathers to relax in the early evening. One of them carefully reaches into his pocket and pulls out a bundle of khat, stimulant leaves of a shrub popular in East Africa and Arabia.
"In Somalia, if you invite a person to dinner, you have to offer him khat,"
says one of them, asking that his name not be published.
"It is like drinking coffee after a meal here in Canada."
But since his arrest in 2001 for chewing the leaves, the middle-aged man repeatedly peeks out of the window as he enjoys khat, afraid the police will show up again.
"In Somalia when you use it, you feel like a king," he says. "But here it is like you are a criminal."
Chewing khat for recreational and religious purposes is part of the routine in his home country, a habit as common as lighting a cigarette. But in Canada, khat has been blacklisted as a narcotic ever since Parliament passed the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in the late 1990s.
While border officials are trumpeting seizures of $3.2-million worth of khat since January, Somali immigrants in Toronto are blaming the crackdown for festering tensions in their community.
Last month, officials seized $1.1-million worth of the drug in the Greater Toronto Area, slightly up from $980,000 during the comparable period in 2004.
"There has been more khat per seizure," explained Patrizia Giolti, communications manager at the Canadian Border Services Agency. "We want people to know that it is illegal here."
Khat, also known as Abyssinian tea, African salad and a variety of other street names, brings euphoria, sharpens thinking and increases energy, said Nelo Mohammed, a 32-year-old Somali cab driver who immigrated to Canada in 1993.
"It doesn't turn you into a violent person like alcohol," he said.
"Instead, it makes you friendlier, more talkative."
Health Canada, however, warns of extreme risks when khat is taken in high
doses: aggression, brain hemorrhaging and heart attacks.
Khat contains active ingredients cathinone and cathine, both classified as controlled substances by United Nations' drug control treaties by which Canada abides.
Nonetheless, addiction experts doubt whether khat should be perceived as a narcotic.
"To my knowledge, it is an addictive substance like caffeine," said Dennis James, deputy clinical director at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.
Dr. James has never dealt with anyone suffering from khat addiction and notes that no specific treatment exists. He also suggests that authorities might be too rigorous in their screening criteria.
"If alcohol were discovered today it would probably not pass," he said.
Somali immigrants remain bitterly divided over khat's effects on their community, said Osman Ali, president of the Somali-Canadian Association in west-end Toronto.
Officially, religious and community leaders in the city view khat as a narcotic. "But if you use it, no one will think you are a criminal or a drug addict," Mr. Ali said.
For some immigrants, the health risks pale in comparison with the social problems triggered by the high costs of the habit.
Since khat was banned, its price has soared to $60 a bundle from $15.
"If a person making $600 per month spends about $500 on khat, how will he be able to pay the rent?" asked Mr. Ali. He estimates that more than 40,000 Somalis in Toronto are regular users, roughly 50 per cent of the adults in the community.
The financial strain regular users place on their families has been a growing concern among Somalis.
"Families have been torn apart because of this," Mr. Ali said. "Many of us think it is destroying our community."
Mr. Mohammed, the cab driver, disagrees.
"I know a lot of responsible men who use khat," he said.
The higher prices have forced Mr. Mohammed, a father of two, to cut back on the habit to a couple of hours during the weekend.
"I chew in moderation and only buy as much as I can afford," he said.
Mr. Mohammed argues that Canada should follow Britain's example, where khat is legal and abundant. At a London market, a bunch can be purchased for only UKP3 ($6.80). In Somalia a bunch costs less than $1.
"People chew it every day in Somalia, from three in the afternoon to eight at night," said Mohammed Sudi, a 24-year-old cook who immigrated to Canada a decade ago.
Grown in Kenya and Ethiopia, khat tastes bitter and has a relatively short shelf life of two to three days. To preserve its moisture and potency during the trip across the Atlantic, smugglers wrap it in banana leaves.
Khat smugglers are generally sentenced to three years in jail, but judges tend to be more lenient with them, especially in comparison with those caught with heroin and cocaine.
Some judges aren't even aware of khat's existence as a drug, said Mr. Sudi, currently on probation after having been arrested with a bag of khat.
Law enforcers also prioritize other drugs over khat.
"It is not widespread, so people don't perceive it as a serious problem,"
said RCMP Superintendent Ron Allen.
"Not everyone knows what it is, but everyone knows cocaine and heroin."