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I Want a New Drug

Centuries-old stimulant shows up in Memphis convenience store.



On January 11th, two employees at the Vollintine Market in North Memphis — Haider Mohammed and Sameer Murshed — were arrested and charged after police found a drug called khat and a loaded pistol behind the counter.

Khat, a flowering shrub that can be used as a stimulant, is fairly new to Memphis, but the drug dates back to at least the 15th century in its native East Africa and Arabian Peninsula. Users have reported feeling energetic, talkative, and extremely thirsty.

Lt. Mike Shearin of the Memphis Police Department's Organized Crime Unit said there have been 20 khat arrests since it was discovered here in 2007.

"It's something that's been on the department's periphery," Shearin said. "We don't turn a blind eye to it, but it's something that's not prevalent in Memphis. It's similar to any other emerging drug."

Shearin said individuals of Somali, Ethiopian, and Yemeni descent are the principal users, transporters, and distributors of the drug in the U.S. He said the drug isn't illegal in their native countries and is similar to their "cup of coffee in the morning."

Among the recent khat arrests in the city, at least two have occurred in convenience stores. Another convenience store arrest occurred in July 2010 at Smart Mart on South Highland. One of the establishment's employees, Khalid Awal, was found with more than 90 grams of khat in his possession and charged with intent to distribute. This was the second khat arrest at the store.

Available in the U.S. since 1995, khat (pronounced cot) is normally ingested by chewing the shrub's leaves, similar to how one would use loose tobacco, but it can also be smoked or brewed in tea. The drug's effect usually lasts between 90 minutes and several hours. After-effects can include lack of concentration, numbness, and insomnia.

Amjad Hamdalla, 38, a former khat user, said the drug is as popular among his friends — mostly immigrants from Israel and Somalia — as marijuana is to Americans.

"A lot of people I know here do it," said Hamdalla, a Palestinian immigrant who now lives in Memphis. "They will chew it for hours at a time and get really high. It's their weed."

Hamdalla said he's seen many people become dependent on the drug.

"It doesn't take more than a week to get addicted," Hamdalla said. "After that, you're doing it constantly to get that high."

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration's website, khat is transported from Somalia and distributed in the West, Midwest, and Southeast regions of the U.S. In the Southeast, the drug is most commonly distributed in Nashville.

Hamdalla said it's extremely easy to transport: "It looks like some herbs and spices for teas."

Over the years, the presence of the drug has increased nationally. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, law enforcement seized more than 33,000 kilograms of the drug in 2007, but the number swelled to more than 74,000 kilograms in 2008.

Shearin said the MPD doesn't predict a dramatic increase of khat in the city, but nothing is certain.

"I can't predict the future and say whether it's going to grow in the city, but for now, it's not something that we see every day," Shearin said. "We see it from time to time, but we don't anticipate it becoming a major problem."

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