Image 1 of 5
Photo: Charles Fred (Flickr)
Image 2 of 5
Photo: eesti (flickr)
Image 3 of 5
Photo: Bill Shaw
Image 4 of 5
Photo: Christian Triebert
Image 5 of 5
Photo: Bill Shaw
A drug trafficking case involving 11 Somali immigrants and an East African drug called khat came as a wake-up call to Indianapolis’ immigrant community.
Khat is like chewing tobacco, the leaves are chewed up and packed into the side of the cheek, releasing a mild buzz. It can also be brewed in to a tea and has been a tradition for centuries in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, where Islamic Law forbids drinking alcohol.
As immigrants come to the U.S., it is one of the traditions they bring with them.
But khat has been illegal in the U.S. for the past 20 years.
How Khat Compares To Other Drugs
The penalties for possessing khat are equal to other drugs such as cocaine.
They did not know they were doing something illegal.” -Jamal Ali, Taxi Driver
One of the first khat trafficking cases in the country recently played out in Indianapolis.
The FBI seized more than 400 kilograms of khat with a street value of $400,000 and they arrested 11 men who were moving it between Indianapolis and Columbus Ohio.
Most of them were taxi drivers.
Jamal Ali came from Somalia 17 years ago, and has been driving a cab in Indianapolis for 15 years. He knows a number of the men who were arrested and says they were just chewing khat to get through long shifts and blow off steam after work.
“It was something that was normal to them in their own society and the culture they grew up with, but it was a matter of awareness,” he says. “They did not know they were doing something illegal.”
A Drug Or A Culture Tradition
Indiana University Professor of African Folklore John Johnson spent eight years in East Africa. He was brought into the Indianapolis case to talk about how khat is used to interact socially. He compares Somalis chewing the leaf to Americans drinking coffee.
“They have little bowls of sugar around because khat is putrid bitter, and they chew on it. They talk about politics. They talk about other issues of social interest and just generally socialize and enjoy themselves together,” he says.
But where Johnson compares it to coffee, Indianapolis Drug Enforcement Administration agent Dennis Wischern say khat is more like cocaine.
“Khat being a stimulant can also lead to violence delusional thinking and paranoia and that’s one of the reasons the DEA scheduled it back in 1993,” Wischern says.
Attorney Howard Bernstein, who represented one of the Somali men indicted in the Indianapolis trafficking case, says conflicting government statutes on the leaf’s level of danger make pursuing khat prosecutions problematic.
Khat being a stimulant can also lead to violence delusional thinking and paranoia.”
-Dennis Wischern, DEA Agent
“The equivalency in the sentencing tables that the governments been using since 1987 to sentence people in the federal criminal system it was given one one hundreth of potency of khat to marijuana,” he says.
Khat and amphetamines have similar chemical structures but, khat’s effects are far milder. You would have to pack more than four pounds of the leaf into your mouth to chew out a dose equivalent to a single line of cocaine.
“I don’t know what the government spent on the case, my guess is the figure is into seven figures, it probably isn’t worth that kind of prosecution and the resources are better spent elsewhere,” Bernstein says.
The Effects On The Somali Men And Their Families
The Somali community is a tight-knit group and often hung out at Somali House of Coffee on the west side of Indianapolis.
But since the case indicting the owner for providing a place to use and buy khat revealed the FBI was surveilling the area and tapping suspected customers phones, Jamal Ali says Somalis have been afraid to come to back.
“They were trying make it look like its a big drug and that was not the case at all,” Ali says.
Because khat has been pushed into the black market, the FBI says it’s often linked to money laundering and violence.
Most of the men convicted in the Indianapolis case were sentenced to about a year in jail plus probation. But the effects have been far further reaching.
“I know this latest arrest of some of our community members had a very devastating effect for some families,” Ali says.
The majority of the convicted men aren’t American citizens, and with a felony drug conviction, they and their families are on the register to be deported.
“You can imagine how these clans would treat these folks, coming for the United States back to Somalia, they’d probably kill all these people thinking they were some kind of spy or cooperator with our government or who knows what,” Bernstein says.
But U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can’t deport people back to countries that don’t have established governments, and Somalia has been in a state of civil war for two decades.
Unless things stabilize or immigration finds a third country that will accept them, the men and their families will remain in the U.S. and outside detention until further notice.