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Appeals Court Considers Common East African Plant A Drug

Ethiopians sell and buy khat at a market.

An appeals court ruling convicting two Somali-Americans of selling a drug that’s commonly used in East Africa could have an effect on the cultural traditions they retained after coming to the U.S.

Khat is a plant native to East Africa and is used as part of the region’s cultural traditions. There, the plant is often made into tea, sprinkled on food and chewed like tobacco as a stimulant.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency Special Agent Will Taylor says khat mimics very strong stimulant drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine.

“It has no medical use,” he says. “It has a propensity for addiction it has some negative associated things such as grandiose delusions, paranoia, nightmares hallucinations and hyper activity effect.”

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency considers it a drug, so when two Somali-American men were caught selling the plant in an Indianapolis coffee shop last year, they were charged with drug trafficking. In its first ruling on the substance, the 7th Circuit Appeals Court this week upheld that ruling.

Attorney Howard Bernstein represented one of the men and says African communities’ use of khat is comparable to Americans consumption of coffee–both in the effect it has on people and in the social context it’s consumed.

“I find that these decisions a bit perplexing and sad because it is an assault on a practice that is so common place in other parts of the world,” he says.

He says it is only dangerous in extreme dosages and the court’s decision could have serious negative consequences for other east African communities.

Because their appeal was denied, the two men will serve several months in prison, followed by three years on parole.

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