Thus far, Britain's Home Office has parried arguments for controlling , saying it is a mild narcotic and an innocent cultural past time with few proven social or medical ills.
'Khat has slowly been killing our community'
Each week, according to a widely cited but likely outdated government estimate, around seven tons of the leafy stimulant arrives at Heathrow Airport from the fields of Ethiopia and Kenya, to be whisked to cafes, known as , frequented by many of Britain's 250,000-strong Somali migrant community, as well as the country's smaller Ethiopian and Yemeni groups.
Chewers devour up to two pounds of the leaf in a session. Similar to the chewing of cocoa leaves among Andean people, use is a centuries-old tradition originating in East Africa and the Arabian peninsula.
It has a social function of lubricating political debate and religious study – early users reportedly included Koran scholars – as well as quelling hunger in a poor corner of the world. In a Western context, the role of is less clear. A growing clamor of voices favor a ban amid concerns that the drug is wreaking havoc in Britain's large Somali population.
" has slowly been killing our community but no one has paid any attention, until now," says former addict Abukar Awali. At the height of his habit, Mr. Awali says he chewed up to eight pounds of leaves daily.
"It's no exaggeration to say it is preventing us from integrating," he says. "When you chew, you don't work or meet anyone apart from Somalis. Maybe 80 percent of our men chew . When you are not chewing, you become paranoid and depressed. Everybody in my community knows someone with a problem; they are just afraid to say it."