The eight perforated cardboard boxes standing in front of Yassim's counter look inconspicuous enough. Each box contains 40 bundles, wrapped in banana leaves, of a thin-stemmed plant with shiny brown leaves that looks like wilted basil. The plants were harvested in northern Kenya less than 24 hours before, flown to Heathrow Airport, loaded onto trucks and distributed to merchants throughout London. One of those merchants is Yassim, 43, a former welder from Somalia who has fathered nine children with four different women and now owns a café on Kentish Town Road.
Speed is of the essence, because Catha edulis is a delicate plant. It begins to die the minute it is harvested, and after 48 to 60 hours it is nothing but a vegetable. If that happens, all the effort put into harvesting and transporting the plant will have been in vain. But when the plant is fresh it is nothing short of green gold, a paradise flower known as khat. When the user chews several bundles for one or two hours, cathinone, referred to as a "natural amphetamine," is released, causing intoxication. Its effect has been likened to that produced by a mixture of caffeine and morphine, cannabis and cocaine.
Khat, one of the world's oldest drugs, is believed to have been used in ancient Egypt, during the days of Alexander the Great and to produce the smoke at the Oracle of Delphi. Its use was long restricted to the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa, but then refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen came to Europe. Roughly 250,000 Somalis now live in Great Britain, and they brought khat with them -- first in their suitcases and later by mail. Today, four cargo flights a week from Nairobi to London are loaded with the coveted plant. According to a 2005 estimate, 10,000 tons of khat are shipped to Great Britain annually.
Great Britain, unlike Germany and most other European countries, has not banned khat, and London has become a hub for international exports of the drug as a result. From London, it is distributed, either by mail or courier, to countries where it is illegal, including the United States and Norway. "Many packages are intercepted, but if one makes it through, that's enough for the smugglers," says Yassim. Khat is 10 times as expensive in the United States and Norway as it is in London.
Khat is more or less openly available in cities like Tel Aviv, Chicago, Sydney, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Copenhagen. Authorities in New York seized 25 tons in 2006, while German law enforcement confiscated more than eight tons of the drug in 2008.
The plant has also crossed a cultural barrier on its global voyage of conquest. It is no longer a drug of immigrants, but a popular stimulant for a broader group of users, at least in London. A bundle, weighing roughly 100 grams (3.5 ounces), sells for £3 ($4.50).
Khat, the drug of choice of Somali warlords and pirates, has recently become popular among students, who use it to boost concentration, and among former addicts, who use it as an alternative to other drugs. Meanwhile, there are the young people who simply want to try it out and the bankers who can no longer afford cocaine.
A woman walks into the café on Kentish Town Road, buys five bundles of khat and leaves. "One of my regular customers," says Yassim. Britons rarely sit down with Africans, and most buy the plant and take it with them. "For us Somalis, on the other hand, chewing khat is a social event. Chewing khat at home alone is unusual."
Close to 80 percent of Somali men in London use khat, a higher percentage than at home in Somalia. It is a community drug, and perhaps its high use in the UK is a reflection of a need for community in a foreign country. This also explains why Somalis come to khat cafes, known as mafreshi, hundreds of which have sprung up throughout London.
In the early afternoon, only a few regulars are sitting on the red, upholstered benches in Yassim's café. He calls them "the crazy ones." "I am here 365 days a year, four or five hours a day," says Ibrahim, one of the regulars. He is sitting in front of two bundles, his daily ration, slowly chewing one of the stems and drinking sweet tea to offset the drug's bitter taste. "For us, khat is a way to escape the dreariness of reality and flee into the past," says Ibrahim. Men like Ibrahim, doctors, lawyers and teachers in Somalia, work as bus drivers in London -- if they are lucky enough to have a job, that is. Eighty percent of Somali immigrants in the UK are unemployed.
By the evening, all seats are taken. In the front room, a group of older men -- nicknamed "the parliament" -- discusses politics. The younger men sit in the back room, watching football and talking about music. Every so often the men go into the basement to pray. Khat and Islam are not incompatible. Early users included Islamic scholars, who chewed khat to improve their concentration while studying the Koran.
Yassim sells four cardboard boxes of Catha edulis a day, or 160 bundles, making £480 ($720). Khat, as a drug of the common people, is not exactly making Yassim a rich man. A ban on the drug is discussed periodically, a controversial topic among Somali immigrants. Many women favor a ban, arguing it makes the men lethargic and causes them to spend too much money. Some say it harms the stomach and leads to nervousness, malnutrition, depression and psychosis.
But opponents of a ban argue that it would become the preserve of professional drug dealers, sparking price rises and the risk that Somalis would be tempted to switch to harder drugs.
Another argument against a ban is the fact that an entire khat industry has developed in London, supporting thousands of Somalis, who work as wholesalers, shippers, mafreshi and mobile vendors. It would also affect the thousands of small farmers who cultivate the plant in Kenya, Yemen and Ethiopia.
The one country that no longer exports khat is Somalia, where 18 years of civil war have virtually wiped out cultivation.