Every Tuesday and Friday, men with plastic bags converge on an inconspicuous parking lot somewhere in Germany, waiting for a white van from Holland. When it arrives, the driver quickly dispenses five or six cartons and quickly drives off. On those days Ali sometimes calls his dealer and asks for two or three cokes. “You never mention the word khat, not on the phone,” Ali says seriously.
The polite, softly spoken man doesn't want to take any risks. He has removed his name from his doorbell. Ali is not his real name. Only a couple of weeks ago, police raided the flat of a local khat dealer, who was living in the same run-down building. “The police had installed cameras outside his flat”, Ali says. Khat, a mild stimulant grown in East Africa and Yemen and consumed by Somalis and Yemenis, and to a lesser extent by Ethiopians and Kenyans, is illegal in Germany.
“You can find khat everywhere”
Ali lives in a suburb inhabited mostly by migrants. It's made up of shabby grey tower blocks and discount supermarkets. A large, faded sign exhorts residents to call the local police branch, should they notice anything unusual. Just a couple of steps down the road, several young Somali men sheltering from the drizzle under a concrete porch, its paint peeling, eye any white intruder curiously. One of them is nonchalantly holding a bulky plastic bag.
“You can find khat everywhere in this neighbourhood. You can see people chewing it on the streets”, Ali says and shrugs. His daughter's bright pink colouring book lies forgotten next to the glasses of thick, sweet mango juice Ali has just served. It's hard to imagine that he could be involved in any illicit activities.
But in a way, he is: he's just paid his dealer four euros for two small bundles of khat. Slim, shiny-brown stalks – about the length of a foot each – are wrapped in banana leaves and tied up with string. He knows it's illegal in Germany. “You're not allowed to chew khat, I think, but they're not going to fine you or anything. But it's illegal to buy, so you have to be careful.”
Khat is a link to his culture
Ali doesn't feel like a criminal. He smiles, shyly. For him, khat is a part of his culture, a link to the home he left some fifteen years ago to study in Germany. Ali grew up with his father and uncles chewing khat and first started chewing when he was a student. Khat kept him awake when he was studying for his exams. “Like coffee”, he says.
Traditionally, in East Africa and Yemen, khat is consumed at the workplace or at home with friends and family. But in Western Europe, the traditional culture has often been eroded, David Anderson, a professor of African politics at Oxford University says. “Khat is being consumed in khat clubs, or mafishes, which are often in the back rooms of retail shops.” Women complain that khat deflects income from household expenditure and that it takes male members of the household away from the family environment.
Only ten percent of khat users have problems of addiction and overuse, Anderson says. In fact, the traditional method of consuming khat – chewing the leaves for hours on end – prevents serious addiction, says Paul Griffiths, of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. Although regular khat users may become dependent on the drug, the dependence is moderate compared to other drugs such as tobacco or alcohol.
Ali says that none of his friends are addicted. “Some chew every day, because they're bored.” It structures an empty day without work, gives an excuse to meet up with friends and chat. They could, of course, drink coffee. “But you drink a coffee in half an hour”, Ali says. Chewing khat can go on for hours.
Singling out of Somali communitites
The Dutch government evidently believes khat is far from innocuous. Earlier this year it announced plans for ban which it said was justified by the “social harms” khat can cause. A decision on the ban is pending until the elections in September. A government spokeswoman said outlawing the substance would help the Somali communities integrate better into Dutch society.
Professor Anderson believes the arguments in favor of proscription are unconvincing. "Somali communities do have major problems of integration and finding jobs," he explains, "given the trauma of war and conflict they have often escaped." But khat is not the cause of their problems.
Creating a black market
Anderson also warns the ban may lead to undesirable consequences. When Scandinavia, the US and Canada banned the drug, they created lucrative black markets. Khat went from being a relatively cheap consumer pastime, taxed and regulated by the government, to being a valuable commodity with large profit margins, making it attractive for organised crime.
In 2011, German customs officials seized 4.7 tonnes of khat, up from 3.6 tonnes in 2009. Accurate figures are hard to obtain, but the officials estimate that around 10 tonnes of khat – possibly more – were smuggled through Germany while on its way to Scandinavia last year.
Khat's not cool
Professor Anderson believes khat will cease to be a problem once migrant communities are better integrated into their host countries. “Khat chewing involves putting twigs and leaves in your mouth, chewing for hours on end. Slime and froth form around your lips, bits of green leaves are sticking out of your mouth.” And that, he believes, is just not cool. Younger Somalis can get their highs in easier and quicker ways, he adds.
That's exactly what Ali wants to avoid. One day, he will initiate his children into the world of chewing. “I think it's better than drinking beer or taking drugs. Because beer goes to your head, but if you chew, you keep the control.” He shrugs, glancing at his daughter's tricycle: that day is still quite far off.