Three years ago, it was a lot easier to venture out along Murfreesboro Pike toward the airport, find a restaurant serving predominantly the East African immigrant community, walk in and witness patrons with bulges in their cheeks, enjoying a chaw of African Salad — a street name for the drug more commonly known as khat, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Along with growing numbers of immigrants from the Horn of Africa coming into the United States, settling in Nashville and other cities, came the cultural practice of chewing or mixing into tea the leaves and stems of khat, an evergreen shrub grown in East Africa.
Det. Corey Sanderson, with Metro police’s Specialized Investigations Division, recalls an investigation that began in December 2008 and led to dozens of arrests, sending the message to some of Nashville’s newest residents that despite the traditions of their homeland, the stimulating vegetation chewed socially across the pond meant trouble here.
Abdourahman Ismail was one of those arrested in March 2009 on felony drug charges. Police at the time said Ismail managed a restaurant at 339 Wilhagan Road, off of Murfreesboro Pike near Interstate 24. Inside, instead of a menu and a hot kitchen, Metro detectives found several individuals chewing graba, or dried khat. After officers read his Miranda rights, Ismail pointed them to the parking lot, where they found 30 bags of graba inside two vehicles.
Sanderson’s affidavit that accompanied the arrest stated that Ismail told police he allowed other arrestees to sell graba out of that location. But Ismail’s recent conviction on drug charges — a milestone for both law enforcement and immigrant communities — might permanently change the Middle Tennessee landscape when it comes to the exotic drug.
Khat (pronounced “cot”) is an evergreen shrub that grows in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. According to the DEA, it produces an amphetamine-like euphoric effect, causing users to feel relaxed, talkative and energized. The highest rates of khat abuse are in cities with high concentrations of Somali, Ethiopian and Yemeni immigrants, according to the DEA. They include Boston; Columbus, Ohio; Dallas; Detroit; Kansas City, Mo.; Los Angeles; New York; Washington; and Nashville.
Wrapped in newspaper, plastic bags or banana leaves, khat (usually in bundles of the plant’s leaves and twigs) can be smuggled, shipped or express-mailed from where it’s grown and used legally to destinations such as the U.S. It’s then distributed, particularly to areas with large East African immigrant populations, portions of which have grown accustomed to using khat.
For the immigrants who brought the practice of chewing khat or graba here with them, it’s traditionally a social pastime similar to after-work beers or celebrating a special occasion, said Abdirizak Hassan, director of The Center for Refugees & Immigrants of Tennessee, on Plus Park Boulevard near Murfreesboro Pike.
But in America, the social aspects of chewing khat or graba turned askew, Hassan said, when those who did it — isolated and not fully integrated into their new society — ended up just getting together to chew.
“We, as a community,” Hassan said, “we’ve tried to [teach] people and tell them this thing is not legal here — it’s a controlled substance. … you can’t assume [the U.S.] is like Somalia or U.K.”
Since khat was outlawed in the U.S. in the early 1990s, Metro officers — like other law enforcement personnel — have had to master a learning curve on how to establish a successful prosecution.
And some of those immigrants from nations where khat is legal and openly used had their own learning curve to negotiate. What may have been viewed as the best part of waking up on the Horn of Africa (as well as in some European countries, including Britain) is very much illegal here. Cathinone, the most potent active ingredient in khat, is held to the level of heroin, ecstasy, LSD, marijuana and other Schedule I drugs deemed the worst of the worst in America.
But unlike most drugs, khat’s potency degrades quickly once it’s harvested as the cathinone breaks down. If not preserved by refrigeration, khat can slip in both potency and criminal consequences over a matter of several days. Another element of the plant, cathine, is a Schedule IV drug, however, and does not degrade like cathinone does.
“I think that was one of the problems that they were having with the prosecution over the past few years,” Sanderson said. "It wasn’t that nobody was enforcing it. It was hard to prosecute because it was hard to prove that at the time it was possessed that it was a Schedule I narcotic, because by the time it was tested it had already broken down.”
So for the 2009 investigation, detectives adapted their approach. Once they scored an undercover buy, they froze the khat to preserve it for later testing. The cathinone remained and stiffer prosecutions stuck.
“Once we took the action of enforcing it, I think that’s when people who were using it realized that this was serious business, and that’s probably why we’re not seeing as much of it now,” Sanderson said.
That early 2009 investigation led to about 50 total arrests — all of them along the Murfreesboro Pike corridor, Sanderson said.
“When we first started, it was pretty much open-air markets,” Sanderson said. “We were having no problems at all making the buys.”
The probable cause needed to secure the search warrants came from about a dozen controlled buys set up by the Metro Narcotics Unit. The buys came easily, lasting no more than 10 minutes each to arrange and conclude. Most of those arrested in Metro were native Ethiopians and Somalis, according to Sanderson.
Following the 2009 drug unit investigation, after all of the search warrants had been served and the arrests made, Sanderson said police set out again to secure some khat via controlled buys but scored nothing. Sanderson has since made rounds through the restaurants where he’d expected to find khat, only to report no patrons with the telltale puffed-out cheeks of graba chewers.
“In the past … you could just walk in and you could find individuals openly using the graba, chewing it and that sort of thing,” he said. “So I’ve walked in restaurants since then and nobody’s using it — nobody.”
That’s not to say that somewhere in Nashville right now, there’s not some wide-eyed, green-toothed khat or graba user hopped up on the African Salad, but they’re likely not chewing the brush out in the open as in years past.
“Most of them were aware of what it was, but there hadn’t been a lot of enforcement I guess over the past few years since they’d probably been in America,” Sanderson said. Once they realized we were actually enforcing [laws against khat] … I don’t know if that’s one reason why it stopped.”
On the national level, the feds have opened the throttle on their own investigations, with the latest headline case debuting last month. That case, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia — just this side of the nation’s capital — touted the arrests of 18 individuals allegedly linked to an international distribution network that funneled some 4.4 million grams of khat through England, Canada and Holland into the U.S. and then dispersed it throughout the country.
The government alleges that Yonis Muhudin Ishak emailed contacts in England and other countries, providing them with addresses in the U.S. where they were to ship khat. Ishak and his co-conspirators, according to federal prosecutors, hid behind aliases and disguised their product with code words such as “babies” and “CDs” while arranging shipments over cell phones.
Once the shipments arrived on U.S. soil, the suspects allegedly posed as taxi drivers to deliver khat, arranged for rental vehicles to pick up paid khat couriers at airports, and rented mailboxes and addresses not associated with leaders of t he distribution ring.
The defendants then broke up the larger overseas shipments into small bundles for resale before shipping them to destination states, including Tennessee, via the U.S. Postal Service, DHL, FedEx and UPS.
The group then transmitted distribution proceeds, according to the government, back to suppliers in England, Somalia, Uganda and Kenya, as well as to other individuals. Those arrested in the alleged plot face federal charges of conspiring to distribute cathinone and conspiring to commit money laundering.
Last Tuesday, a Nashville jury returned a guilty verdict against Ismail for his 2009 arrest, convicting him of facilitation of possession with intent to sell cathinone and possession of drug paraphernalia, according to the district attorney’s office. He is to be sentenced Aug. 10.
Hassan said others in the community took note after Ismail’s arrest that using khat and graba — or worse, selling it — was “no joke.”
“It was clear from their actions that they didn’t understand that they were doing something illegal, and it could be trouble,” he said.
Hassan can’t say for sure whether the arrests two years ago all but stopped the khat-and-graba game here, or if users just moved their regular chewing and sipping gatherings to more private locales. But “when the police raided a couple of the places where they gathered and do these things, a lot of people stopped doing it. … It’s no longer as a available as it used to be.”