Thirteen natives of Somalia and Yemen are on trial in U.S. Federal Court near Washington for allegedly smuggling millions of dollars' worth of khat into the United States. Khat is a plant whose leaves and upper branches contain a mild stimulant and has been openly chewed in those and other countries for centuries, often while drinking tea.
Khat is chewed in social settings around the Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa. It is legal in Somalia and Yemen, and in Britain and the Netherlands, but not in the United States.
Khat's green leaves and branches contain cathinone, a stimulant known to produce a mild high but considered a serious drug under U.S. federal law.
Grant Smith with the Drug Policy Alliance says the government overreacted.
"When people have taken a look at khat, they have found that it is really just a mild stimulant," said Smith. "It is akin to a couple of cups of coffee or some energy drinks. And while there may be some long term health effects from using it, that doesn't mean we should criminalize people who use it."
But some believe khat is addictive and often leads to child abuse and domestic violence as depicted in this film by the Minneapolis based organization Somali Cause.
"So, they stay up for maybe a day or two or so," noted Mohamed Hassan works with Somali Cause. "And then once they start feeling the sleepiness, then they crash for two or three days. So there you can see that person cannot really be productive."
Drug policy reform advocates argue that prosecuting people for khat is a waste of public resources. They say the use of khat should be treated as a public health issue.
"We should have a reasonable response that is based on public education, that looks at health, the health effects that is reality-based education," Smith added. "And not respond to the typical sort of response we usually have to drugs which is to criminalize first and ask questions later."
Smith says people are less likely to seek help for khat use if using it is a crime. But Mohamed Hassan says khat is not a recreational stimulant that can be used within reason.
"I do think strongly that it is addictive. I mean it makes people go beyond their means. Obviously, it is not helping them," said Hassan.
Hassan says khat use is not very common in the Somali-American community. Attorneys for the 13 defendants say the case stems from concerns that smuggled khat is being used to fund terrorism, but that no evidence of that has turned up in court.