Khat Scratch Fever
Ever since it kept cropping up in the Paul Theroux travel books I was reading, I have been fascinated with khat (pronounced "jat"), a narcotic leaf that is a social drug used in the Horn of Africa, typically chewed. Africans see it as normal a substance as coffee, but in this country it is illegal, and the influx of Somali and Ethiopian immigrants has led to smuggling and mass arrests.
In the last few years, San Diego, which has a large Somali population, has seen an almost eight-fold increase in khat seizures. Nationally, the amount of khat seized annually at the country's ports of entry has grown from 14 metric tons to 55 in about the last decade.
Most recently, California joined 27 other states and the federal government in banning the most potent substance in khat, and the District of Columbia is proposing to do the same.
"It is a very touchy subject. Some people see it like a drug; some people see it like coffee," said Abdulaziz Kamus, president of the African Resource Center in Washington, D.C. "You have to understand our background and understand the significance of it in our community."
The story is kind of a lesson in how different cultures can see the same green leaves as either a morning pick-me-up or the scourge of the universe. We have plenty of accepted drugs in our culture with terrible side effects, drugs that can ruin lives, but which simply have better PR machines behind them. And we have plenty of drugs which are banned, where the side effects are far less clearly negative, and which even have some medicinal qualities. The war on some kinds of drugs is not just the wrong way to go about treating addictions; it clearly chooses winners and losers for somewhat obscure reasons.