DRUG TEST: The Khat Is Outta The Bag


deeneythumbnail.jpgBY JEFF DEENEY Lord knows Christine Olley at the Daily News has taken enough abuse from the cops on Domelights to last a lifetime (her gaffe at the press conference called in the wake of officer Chuck Cassidy’s death spurred a backlash of legendary proportions), so I hate to pile on an otherwise decent reporter, especially for such a brief piece, but today’s story on a recent seizure of the drug Khat deserves a callout.

Olley manages in all of 187 words to score a hat trick in the drug hysteria department by comparing the drug, likened by other reporters to a strong jolt of caffeine, first to methamphetamine in the article’s byline, then to cocaine and heroin in her lede:

81 pounds of khat — a methlike substance — seized at airport

Philadelphia Daily News

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers at Philadelphia International Airport have seized about 81 pounds of an illegal plant that has been compared to cocaine or heroin.

According to Christine this one plant is somehow comparable to two very differently acting stimulants AND a major central nervous system depressant. The wonders of nature never cease to amaze. Let’s take a look at how Khat is characterized in a more responsible report by Andrew Maykuth in the Inquirer:

“Khat is a mild, addictive stimulant that has gained a following among some cab drivers in the United States. Philadelphia police in September seized 740 pounds of khat in a house in East Falls.”

Mild, addictive stimulant is a far cry from “methlike.”

Some reports over the past five years have differentiated between the Khat plant and a synthetic composition of itskhatbust.jpg active ingredient, methcathinone, which can be manufactured from psuedoephedrine. Methamphetamine can also be manufactured from pseudoephedrine, so I suppose “methlike” is not an entirely wrongheaded characterization of the synthetic powder version of methcathinone. However, any possible connection between Khat and meth ends there. The organic Khat plant provides a mild high that lasts two-to-four hours whereas high purity street meth provides a 12-16 hour long high after only one blast. So really, the effect of chewing Khat leaves are probably more responsibly compared to something like a small dose of Ritalin, which, of course, we practically feed by the shovel-full to our children for breakfast every morning.

It’s important to keep these kinds of distinctions clear. Drug hysteria reporting fuels law enforcement overreactions, and can subsequently lead to too-harsh legislation. Imports of Khat have been shown to largely remain in East African and Middle Eastern immigrant communities. Khat loses its potency after only 48 hours of being picked and needs to be chewed in big wads, making it bulky and perishable and not very ripe for mass intercontinental trafficking. People have been chewing Khat as an alternative to alcohol in the Muslim world for a long time. The demonizing of Khat as “like meth” or even more ridiculously, “like heroin” could lead to Khat being scheduled by the DEA as a drug whose potential danger to society is tantamount to those far more destructive drugs. This could lead to scores of immigrants who have been safely chewing the leaves for years to get sucked into America’s futile drug war and locked up in America’s prison system that’s already far too crowded with drug abusers and low level dealers.

Will Christine Olley and every other reporter who in the past five years has rushed to compare Khat to meth, coke and heroin feel like they did their jobs responsibly when users of the drug, who chewed it in their native countries for years without negative impact, start getting slapped with long jail sentences here in the States? Maybe the Daily News should just stop with the sensational and irresponsible drug hysteria reporting.

The straight dope: Erowid on Khat

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