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It's Raining Khat in California

According to DEA documents obtained by Motherboard, seizures of the leafy African stimulant skyrocketed on the West Coast in 2013, after a decade without a single bust. What gives?
June 24, 2014, 5:00pm
Seized khat. Image: DEA

I was sitting shotgun on a ride through West Oakland when my driver, a private investigator who's interested in growing some khat for personal use, told me why he prefers that stimulant over blow.

"Cocaine comes on with this synthetic ferocity which tears through your brain, and all you want is more fucking cocaine," he explained. "But khat makes you feel good, euphoric, you're wide awake—almost a [much] less intense version of cocaine, and it doesn't have the same kind of intensity or addictive properties that coke does."

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If you've never heard of khat, that wouldn't be much of a surprise. In North America it's an obscure African stimulant, sort of like a natural version of cocaine, that's used as a social lubricant, recreational tool, and to stay alert at work. But in many African countries khat is legal. In fact, in Yemen and Somalia it's a lucrative cash crop. An estimated 10 million people around the world chew the tobacco-like substance every day, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Outside of Africa, khat is widely treated as a controlled substance, either tightly regulated or outright illegal, as it is in the US, and as of today in Britain. But that hasn't stopped anyone from moving serious weight around the US.

Back in March, I obtained Drug Enforcement Administration data for West Coast drug seizures in 2013. The documents, which I got partly through a Freedom of Information Act request, are an unwieldy mess of Excel spreadsheets with hundreds of rows and ten tabs, detailing two major khat busts, and dozens of small ones. The two large seizures, of approximately eight metric tons each, were classified by the DEA as seized during a "Mail Inspection." The majority of the nearly 60 smaller busts were between ten and 50 kilos, and they too were mostly seized in the mail, according to the documents.

"Cocaine comes on with this synthetic ferocity which tears through your brain, and all you want is more fucking cocaine. But khat makes you feel good, euphoric, you're wide awake."

There hasn't been a single khat seizure in the Bay Area in over ten years, the government documents add. And suddenly, it's raining khat. That's pretty much all the feds would tell me. What gives?

I ended up spending a few months investigating the black market in the Bay Area—a common transit point for drugs moving from container ships to major drug markets in the Pacific Northwest, Midwest, and even the East Coast—to try and figure out what's driving the apparent khat boom in the Golden State.

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It's a weird drug, khat, because the main psychoactive component—the part that gets you buzzed—is a common stimulant called cathinone. From the men I talked with who had used it, mostly Yemenis in Oakland, it sounds like people get real talkative, feel some kind of euphoria, and just end up wanting to hang out and shoot the shit after munching on some khat leaves. At least in Oakland.

One reason khat is so damn strange is because it chemically changes—deteriorates—from a Schedule I into a Schedule IV narcotic after about 48 hours. It has to do with the freshness of the plant and its psychoactive chemicals, particularly in how the primary stimulant, cathinone, breaks down into a slightly more mild variety called cathine.

Another interesting consequence of the changing drug schedule is that khat isn't much of a sexy target for cops. Schedule IV substances carry shorter sentences, and are regarded by federal prosecutors as extremely low-priority cases.

One of my sources in law enforcement, who wished to remain anonymous, also mentioned that the feds are often reluctant to make khat cases because there is a perceived racial element—that because of khat's cultural significance, prosecuted cases are seen as targeting immigrant communities unnecessarily, especially since there are decidedly more dangerous drugs widely available on the black market.

Watch VICE UK's doc about khat in England, where until today the drug was legal.

But the government is definitely willing to prosecute khat cases, even if infrequently. Take for example the 2006 bust involving 14 Somalis—another culture where khat use is widely accepted—in Seattle, Washington.

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It was part of a much larger trial in New York called Operation Somali Express, a criminal conspiracy that unraveled in Goodfellas-like proportions. Forty-four people had been importing thousands of kilos of khat from Africa, often by way of the UK and Canada, and the DEA charged the members of Seattle's Somali community with serious felonies that carried up to 20 years in prison, and a $1 million fine.

While not all of the khat seized in San Francisco in 2013 was destined for Washington, some of it was marked for King County, where Seattle is located, the DEA documents said.

The Seattle bust netted about 450 kilos of khat, worth about $315,000. By way of comparison, the 2013 busts of 17,000 kilos in San Francisco would be worth about $11,900,000. The 17 tons represents tens of thousands of single doses, maybe hundreds of thousands, depending on the drug's quality and freshness.

Dried out khat that's sometimes used to make tea could even be dangerous, one of the elderly men with a white beard explained. "It can keep you up for days," he said.

None of the five federal law enforcement agencies I contacted were aware of or would discuss criminal prosecution relating to the 2013 seizures—although US Customs and Border Protection supplied me with a document indicating it had seized about 1,500 kilos of khat across California for the same year.

In Oakland, the street price was about $30 a bag. "Sometimes there is khat, and sometimes there isn't," one of the Yemeni shopkeepers told me on the condition of anonymity for fear of federal prosecution. "And recently there hasn't been very much, which makes it expensive."

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After spending a few afternoons scouring the East Bay with the private investigator, I did manage to find a few people who would talk about their experiences with khat. It became apparent how important it is to get the stuff fresh. Dried out khat that's sometimes used to make tea could even be dangerous, one of the elderly men with a white beard explained. "It can keep you up for days," he said.

AN UNIDENTIFIED USER MUNCHES KHAT IN ETHIOPIA. IMAGE: VLAD KARAVAEV/SHUTTERSTOCK

The freshness pretty much made sense, given how the plant's chemical makeup changes as it ages.

Other guys I spoke with while touring Yemeni bodegas in West Oakland likened it to cocaine, only without the addictive burn, that I need more now type of itch. That too is consistent with the way this amphetamine class of stimulant releases dopamine, and norepinephrine from storage areas in our central nervous system.

But like every intoxicant, there are health risks associated with prolonged khat use. Not terribly addictive, at least physiologically, according to government research, khat can cause tooth decay, as well as gastrointestinal disorders. Interestingly, the Yemeni guys were pretty much aware of the potential health risks, warning me generally of stomach problems and green teeth, as they said.

I've also seen cabbies in San Francisco chew the plant—it's pretty distinctive from tobacco because of the green leaves that often protrude from a user's mouth—I imagine to stay awake during late-night shifts. However when I tried to talk with them about it, I got ignored. But cabbies do often take it in tea form, as a cop I know explained.

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That's not much of a surprise, really, as the Yemeni community recalls the 2001 bust of a 61-year-old man growing khat in his backyard, and selling it in San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood.

The seeds were unremarkable. But upon reflection it was worth considering that the 17 tons of khat no one in the government would talk about could easily have been grown somewhere in California's cropland.

The plant isn't too hard to grow in California either. Although it thrives at high altitudes, between 1,370 to 1,980 meters, the innocuous looking plant, at least when compared with marijuana's now ubiquitous leaf pattern, typically grows between one and six meters in height. Khat plants thrive in regions with heavy rainfall, but also can survive in drought periods when many other, less hardy crops fail.

The closest I've been able to get procure fresh khat after about three months of looking—and it has to be fresh—are the seeds, which are fairly widely available online. I didn't buy any, but one of the sources I spoke with while reporting this story showed me a small bag that he'd bought online, and he showed them to me.

The seeds were unremarkable. But upon reflection it was worth considering that the 17 tons of khat no one in the government would talk about could easily have been grown somewhere in California's cropland, the Central Valley. And if some industrious cash croppers did want to grow khat, it's entirely plausible that no one would notice. Khat, after all, looks kind of like a California Buckeye tree. Chew on that.