Oromo: Cultures collide over legality of khat plant

khatBy Molly Montag – mmontag@siouxcityjournal.com
SOUTH SIOUX CITY — In East Africa, growing and partaking of the native plant khat is a traditional part of the culture. In the United States, possessing and using the stimulant can land you in prison, a fact that can come as a surprise to East African immigrants in Siouxland. Several local residents have been arrested in South Sioux City this year for possession of khat. Pronounced “cot,” and sometimes spelled qat, the plant is commonly chewed and brewed in tea in many parts of East Africa and the Middle East.

Under Nebraska law, possessing khat is a class IV felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Edris Genemo, president of the Siouxland Oromo Community Association, said growing and using khat isn’t merely legal in many East African countries, it’s also one of the region’s cash crops. “It’s grown in every garden,” said Genemo, of South Sioux City.

Police won’t say how they think khat is getting from where it is grown in East Africa to South Sioux City, which has a growing East African population, but say a recent string of arrests shows it is most definitely here.

Recent arrests

In October, Midhaqsa D. Gada, 55, of South Sioux City, was charged with felony drug possession after a South Sioux City police officer allegedly found khat in his vehicle after he pulled him over for traffic violations.According to court documents, Gada pleaded guilty and is expected to be sentenced Thursday in Dakota County District Court. Under the terms of a plea agreement in his court file, prosecutors have agreed to recommend Gada be sentenced to serve 24 months of probation, pay a $1,000 fine, pay $500 restitution to the county, perform 100 hours of community service and obtain a substance-abuse evaluation.

In January and February, four people were charged with illegal drug possession after a Nebraska State Patrol trooper allegedly found khat hidden in their vehicles during a series of three traffic stops in South Sioux City. Charged are Farah Warsame, 26, Shagooh Eid, 27, and Mohamed Jama, 27, all of South Sioux City, and Harun Geno, 25, of Sioux City.
According to court documents, in all of the cases the trooper found packaged khat hidden under the front seat of the vehicle. Court documents say Geno was chewing khat when he was pulled over and when asked what he was chewing on, told the trooper it was “cooked cabbage.”

New in town

South Sioux City Sgt. Chris Chernock said khat started to appear on the department’s radar screen a few years ago, when landlords started finding dried-out khat left behind when East African tenants moved out of their homes and apartments. Khat loses its potency after it dries, and in fact, in Woodbury County’s first khat-related case, an Ethiopian immigrant from Minneapolis, 23-year-old Jermal Mohamed Farah, was acquitted of a felony drug tax stamp violation in part because the jury was nearly certain that only trace amounts of the illegal substances remained in the plant. The 2006 case was believed to be the first of its kind to go to trial in Iowa.

Although current demographic statistics are not available, the East African community has been growing in the greater Sioux City area for some time. Somalis, Ethiopians and Sudanese immigrants now make their homes here. Nowhere is that more apparent than in South Sioux City, which has a number of African restaurants, grocery stores and related businesses.

A few years ago, Chernock said, his questions about khat were met with surprise. “At first, they didn’t seem to think it was anything to be upset about,” he said. “They couldn’t understand why we were interested in it.” South Sioux City police officer Matt Hattermann, the agency’s drug-recognition expert, said people probably got away with khat possession at first by telling police it was tea. Now that officers know what it is, and word has gotten out that khat is illegal here, Hattermann said the most common response to his questions is flat denial. “They just deny it’s khat,” he said. “You really can’t get further than that.”

Differing views

Many East African immigrants are surprised to learn khat is illegal here, Genemo said, because it is treated as food or drink, not an illicit drug, in the part of the world they come from. Siouxland police officers see things differently. Hattermann said khat is a stimulant and hallucinogen in the same classification as amphetamine and methamphetamine.

People who use it can be twitchy and nervous and exhibit the same behaviors as someone using meth, Hattermann said. That’s far different than how khat is viewed in East African countries, where Genemo said it’s chewed on a daily basis and considered on par with food or drink. People use it to pass the time or something nice to offer visitors or guests, he said. “Everybody, they use (khat),” he said. “It’s not illegal.”

Before coming to the United States several years ago, Genemo worked for Ethiopia’s department of agriculture. He said khat, coffee and leather are among the country’s chief exports. He said there’s even a union for workers who tend to plants in the thousands of acres of khat grown commercially in farm fields.The Ethiopian government actually profits by taxing the sale and export of khat, Genemo said, which growers can’t send overseas without getting government permits or licenses. For that reason, Genemo’s organization tries to warn new arrivals not to use khat in Siouxland, because they could be arrested and sent to jail.

“This is important to protect our community from,” Genemo said.

US Department of Drug Enforcement Administration’s background information on Khat

Street terms for Khat: (pronounced Cot) Abyssinian tea, African salad, oat, kat, chat, and catha.i Also referred to as qat in Yemen, tschat in Ethiopia, and miraa in Kenya.

What does Khat look like?

  • Khat is a flowering evergreen shrub native to East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
  • Khat that is sold and abused is usually just the leaves, twigs, and shoots of the Khat shrub.

How is Khat used?

  • Khat is typically chewed like tobacco.
  • The fresh leaves, twigs, and shoots of the Khat shrub are chewed, and then retained in the cheek and chewed intermittently to release the active drug.
  • Dried plant material can be made into tea or a chewable paste.
  • Khat can also be smoked and even sprinkled on food.

What are some consequences of Khat use?

  • Common side effects include anorexia, tahycardia, hypertension, insomnia, and gastric disorders.
  • Chronic Khat abuse can result in symptoms such as physical exhaustion, violence, and suicidal depression.
  • Widespread frequent use of Khat impacts productivity because it tends to reduce worker motivation.
  • Khat can induce manic behaviors, hyperactivity, and hallucinations.vi
  • There are reports of Khat-induced psychosis.

Who uses Khat?

  • The use of Khat is an established cultural tradition for many social situations in the areas of primary cultivation: East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
  • Several million people may currently be using Khat worldwide.
  • The largest concentrations of users are in the regions surrounding the Middle East.

How does Khat get to the United States?

  • Khat, while illegal in the United States, is legal in much of Europe, East Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula.Individuals of East African and Middle Eastern descent are mot often responsible for the importation, distribution, possession, and use of Khat in the United States.
  • Khat is usually shipped already packaged in bundles, and wrapped in plastic bags or banana leaves to retain moisture and freshness.
  • Khat is generally smuggled in passenger luggage, overnight express mail, or shipped as air cargo and falsely labeled as “vegetables.”

How much does Khat cost?


  • Exactly prices are not known, but Khat is a relatively costly drug.

* Source (DEA Briefs and Background on Khat)


* Recommended Book : Leaf of Allah: Khat & Agricultural Transformation in Harerge – Ezekiel Gebissa – 2004



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Collaborative stories written or reported by OPride staff and contributors.

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