Our Alcohol vs. Their Khat


As any reasonable person would, a friend of mine asked me the other day: “Abdi, why is the Somali community up and arms about our alcohol, a legal commodity, and yet want to legalize their drug, khat?”

Khat, for those of you who may not know, is a leafy stimulant that contains cathinone, a controlled substance in the United States.

But khat is by no means a Somali drug, as I told my friend.

Many Somalis adopted the habit of chewing it in the past 16 years, when the central government that used to run the country collapsed. Before that, khat was illegal.

Like their counterparts in Europe, Somali khat users in Minnesota began to import the green shrub. At first, law enforcement agencies didn’t know what to make of it. But then, hundreds of boxes filled with this “weird stuff,” as one customs agent put it, kept showing up at the airport.

So the shipments were confiscated and tested. It turns out that khat contains a controlled substance, and sure enough, the word was out in the community. “U.S. is no U.K.,” posted one person on my blog, referring to the fact that khat is legal in Britain.

But as you would expect from addicts, khat users continued to import tons of it illegally. Behind ever smuggler there’s a good cop, and that’s what transpired for Somali khat traffickers in July last year. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency rounded up 44 key players from a dozen states, including 11 from Minnesota. And the operation was rightly named “Operation Somali Express.”

That week, the local media called the usual suspects. Among them was one so-called leader of a Somali organization. He assailed the U.S. government for taking out the smugglers. Khat, he claimed, is like a coffee in Somalia. He exaggerated the normalcy of khat to a point barely shy of calling it a holy material.

Right around that time, the media also were covering the Somali cab drivers who were refusing to transport alcohol-toting passengers to and from the airport.

To me, it was the worst juxtaposition one could imagine. But I was hardly alone. Many people, including my friend as well as a reader of Minnesota Monitor, were bothered by the two incidents.

Allow me to explain few things that don’t get much attention from the media. First, khat is alien to most Somalis just as it is to Americans. It’s not grown in Somalia. (Most of it is imported from Ethiopia and Kenya – the two countries that most Somalis consider enemies and blame for the perpetual violence in their homeland.)

Second, khat is taboo in Somalia. True, its use is becoming more mainstream, especially for men. Nevertheless, khat users are considered outcasts. Smugglers are mostly associated with warring factions. (Disclaimer: I’m in no way suggesting that the suspects who are in trial for khat are similar to those in Somalia. Their case is totally different.)

Third, that one so-called leader who compared khat to coffee is known to espouse divergent views from most Somali values. In writing my story about khat last week, I simply couldn’t find a single person who speaks in favor of it. In fact, one community leader told me that banning khat in the United States “is probably the only thing I agree with the American government.”

Finally, khat is destructive for families, especially for women. Men like to use it in groups and stay away from their families. Scientific studies done by nonprofit organizations showed that khat consumption is the leading cause of divorce in Somalia. And if you think that divorce is not a big deal in that part of the world, consider that unemployment among woman tops 98 percent compared to 70 percent among men.