Khat is a stimulant popular in parts of East Africa. The group is alleged to have imported hundreds of pounds of leaves from the evergreen shrub, which is chewed to produce a mild euphoria.
The challenge for an enterprising dealer is that catinone, the active ingredient in khat, breaks down quickly after leaves and stems of the plant are harvested, making it difficult to ship from the regions where it's grown -- primarily Ethiopia and Yemen.
Of course, where there's a will there's a way, and thanks to international air travel it's possible to transport the plant while still fresh and potent.
Users have described the effects as a bit stronger than coffee and its cultivation and use predates that of the popular pick-me-up bean.
Chewing the plant socially is an accepted tradition in the regions where it is typically grown. Still, in America, where it is prohibited by law alongside other psychoactive drugs, it is a rarity.
Of course, crackdowns on importation of marijuana and cocaine to the United States a generation ago have given rise to an economy of hydroponic pot and bathtub methamphetamines, so it's likely only a matter of time before Khat grows quite well as a houseplant, parts of California provide the warm, arid climate in which the plant thrives, and the short shelf-life would mean homegrown shrubs would be far more convenient.
The Fresno defendants scheduled to appear in court today might have taken a page from local foodies and avoided the international smuggling rap -- after all, I imagine they'd have fetched better prices if they'd advertised their khat as locally produced and organically grown.Jackson West is the founding editor of SFist