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Khat is a leafy green plant containing two main stimulant drugs which speed up your mind and body.

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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.

What is khat?

Suddenly, one of the men paused and turned in his chair. 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. Most recently, California ed 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.

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

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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. 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 Green leaf drug 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.

Effects of khat

In the United States, the substance has been illegal under federal law since 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.

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. Khat leaves are sold attached to thick stalks or dried like tea leaves.

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In fact, within the East African community in the U. 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. 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. All Sections.

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