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|My Date With Mr. Murungi|
The Scotsman, June 5, 2003
With a smile, Ali told me that it would be the trip of a lifetime. Unforgettable. The room fell silent as he spoke, the men at the tables watched as he spelled out the details of the deal. All I had to do was travel to New York with two suitcases, check into a first-class hotel and wait for the pick-up. I was to be paid a fee and expenses to cover airfares and the hotel. As soon as the consignment was collected, I could do as I liked. "Enjoy yourself," Ali said, smiling again.
We were in a shabby room overlooking a London high street. Around 20 men were sitting on sofas and at tables - watching and, it seemed, willing me to accept Aliís illegal proposal. They all knew what the suitcases would contain.
The stuff was all around us, and I could see what it was doing to the men who were chewing it. Their eyes were glazed, bloodshot. Some were animated, others seemed stupefied. These are the visible effects of the drug they call murungi. The hidden effects can be terrifying.
Murungi is a potent form of khat, or qat - a leaf which, when chewed and absorbed into the bloodstream, produces a sense of well-being and boundless energy. In high doses it can cause hallucinations, paranoia and madness. Ali, who wanted me to smuggle two cases of it into America - where it is banned as a dangerous narcotic - is Londonís Mr Murungi. He operates from a place they call Cafe Buz in Old Southall. It is one of several murungi dens in this area, where men come to buy the drug and sit around for hours, chewing and getting high.
Some well-intentioned community workers say the leaf is part of the culture of certain ethnic minorities, especially those from eastern Africa and Yemen. Muslims use it as a substitute for alcohol, they say. According to the benign view of murungi, it is relatively harmless and it is not banned in Britain. But there is a growing body of opinion that says murungi is a pernicious drug that takes an appalling toll on those who use it. The World Health Organization has ordered a study of its effects after worrying reports from medical authorities.
London has become the hub of an illicit international trade. The leaves are grown in Kenya and Ethiopia and flown into Heathrow daily.
One of the biggest importers was Amarjit Chohan, the Asian businessman whose body was found floating off Bournemouth pier last month. He had been murdered. His wife Nancy, mother-in-law Charanjit Kaur and two infant sons are still missing, presumed dead.
Chohan brought large quantities of murungi into Britain through his company, and there are suspicions that his murder and the disappearance of his family are connected to drug dealing. One man has been charged with his murder and two others are being hunted by police.
Smuggling murungi into the United States is a major growth area among narcotics dealers. In 1992 US customs seized 800kg. In 2001 they seized an astonishing 37 tonnes - a 5,000 per cent increase. In America, where its use is spreading beyond minority ethnic groups to college kids and the ghettos, it commands a street price that makes it a highly lucrative commodity for smugglers - men like Ali.
Ali was described to me as the man who knew everything about importing and exporting murungi. When we met he was relaxed and friendly and keen to recruit me into what he said was his team of couriers. We talked at Cafe Buz, where he is a respected figure; around 25 years old, well-dressed and charming, he stands out among the sad-looking characters chewing themselves into a stupor.
Ali claimed he made regular murungi deliveries all over the United States. In Britain it is prized for its affordability - around £10 for a handful of leafy stalks, enough for a 24-hour "buzz" - but in America its illegality makes it more expensive. The Drugs Enforcement Agency estimates the street price at up to $50 - around £30 for a bunch.
"I use four to five different airlines to fly the stuff to the United States," Ali said. "I want you to go to New York. How would you like to spend two nights in Manhattan?"
He laughed expansively. He said he sends five people a week across the Atlantic, and he outlined the type of person he requires for the job. "You have to be British with a British passport," he said. "I like using young people like yourself because they look confident and innocent. You must dress well, wear a suit and do not be afraid. You will not be stopped. I have many people doing this for me. You can meet them if you wish."
It was obvious from his relaxed manner that Ali felt secure in the fastness of Cafe Buz, surrounded by his friends. Some suck on shisha pipes and a sign, hung among the African tapestries on the wall, reads: "VIP Lounge. Minimum charge £7". At £5 a bunch for the best Ethiopian murungi, flown in fresh to Heathrow, VIP status comes cheap at Cafe Buz. This is one of the reasons the drug is causing such concern.
One of Aliís associates joins the discussion, saying: "You will fly to New York tomorrow. You will stay two nights or more if you wish. Then you will fly home. If you like it, you can tell your friends and they can go too."
But what about the risk? "We lose maybe only one per cent of the suitcases that we send to America," Ali said smoothly. "And even then, they will not arrest you. If they find what is in the cases they will take the cases and throw them away and they will send you back to England. But you will not be arrested."
Really? Are the notoriously stringent US customs officers so relaxed in their attitude to murungi?
Of course they are not. DEA spokesman Will Glaspy tells me: "There are two substances in khat which are classified as controlled substances in the United States. These are cathinone and cathine. If we were to find someone bringing two cases of khat into the country they would almost certainly be arrested.
"There is no maximum sentence for this offence. For some drug offences here you can be sentenced to life imprisonment."
While it is unlikely that a young person, offending for the first time, would receive such a penalty, smuggling murungi into the United States could still be disastrous for such a "mule", as couriers of banned substances are known.
There was a whiff of the underworld about the enterprise when Ali gave me my instructions: "I will call you tomorrow and tell you where to meet me. You will not come here again - I do not want your face to be known. When you get the call you will put on a suit, take some nice clothes for your holiday and come to meet me. We will then take you to Heathrow. When you get to America someone will collect the bags. They will pay for the hotel - two days - and take the bags from you.
"They will also give you £250 spending money. Donít worry about it. You wonít get caught. I have been sending people to America like this for ten years." He smiled again and put his hand on my arm. "You can trust me," he said.
Despite claims in some quarters that murungi is little more than a mild stimulant, it is illegal not just in the US but most of Europe. And community leaders among the ethnic groups that use it say it is dangerous.
Dr Iain Murray-Lyon, a gastroenterologist at Londonís Charing Cross Hospital, has studied the effects of the generic leaf, khat, on long-term users. He says: "There are some reports of people becoming psychotic with heavy use, although thatís rare. I had one patient who was a Yemeni student and a heavy user, and was in a schizophrenic state. He was paranoid and quite illogical and had all sorts of delusional ideas. He was immediately committed under the Mental Health Act."
A spokesperson for the drugs charity Drugscope describes khat as "a stimulant drug with effects similar to amphetamine. Chewing it makes people feel more alert and talkative and suppresses the appetite, although users describe an ensuing calming effect when used over a few hours.
"Regular use may lead to insomnia, anorexia and anxiety. In some cases it may make people feel more irritable and angry and possibly violent. Psychological dependence can result from regular use, so that users feel depressed and low unless they keep taking it."
This is what makes murungi so dangerous, according to Hassan Isse of the Somali Khat Project - set up to try to protect users from the ill-effects of the drug. In Somalia, he says, khat leaves are chewed as a recreational and social stimulant. But in Britain expatriates abuse it and end up mentally ill.
"In some parts of London five or six out of every ten people in mental health units are Somalis," he says. "Most of their problems are linked to khat. And the trouble is that when they come out of the units there is no programme to help them. So, a year later, they are straight back in."
The worrying trend is that murungi use is beginning to spread beyond the ethnic groups to young people, for whom it provides a cheap fix. One 19-year-old tells me: "You start chewing at three in the afternoon and youíre still going 24 hours later."
Drug workers estimate there are around 1,000 shops selling khat leaves, including murungi and the less potent hereri, in London. Tonnes of it arrive fresh at Heathrow every day. As Ali explained to me, there is no shortage of supply. I said I would consider his offer and we parted at Cafe Buz. In the street, a group of men lounged listlessly, their eyes bloodshot, telltale green flecks at the corner of their mouths. Here, and on the other side of the Atlantic, people like this are making Ali rich - certainly rich enough to tempt young women into risking their liberty to undertake a "trip of a lifetime".
Khat, from the Catha Edulis tree, originated in Ethiopia and spread to Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Arabia, the Congo, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Madagascar, South Africa and Yemen. Much of the khat consumed in Britain comes from Kenya and Ethiopia.
Khat is harvested in small quantities throughout the year - it loses potency if stored for any great length of time. It requires no fertiliser and thrives when interplanted. Khatís dependence on water has actually facilitated technological advancements in the areas where it is grown, especially Yemen.
The first recorded usage of khat comes in 13th-century literature from the Arabian Penisular. It was prescribed by physicians to treat depression and general lack of energy, and also for malaria and chest infections. Khat was utilised by peasants and soldiers to increase their working or fighting capacity through its stimulant effects. After the US Armyís 1993 debacle in Mogadishu, some military sources commented on the usage of Khat by militiamen fighting for Somalian warlords, saying it increased their bravery and pliability.
Khat has been cited as a major problem for the economies of Ethiopia, Yemen, Djibouti and other countries, partly because, it is suggested, nearly every family spends one third of its disposable income on the drug. A further problem with khat is the "Mafia-like" control over production and distribution. For example, in 1983, then-Somali president Siad Barre banned khat and called for food crops. However, the ban was repealed in 1990, apparently after the khat trade had been placed in the hands of his administration, triggering accusations that such a transfer of control had been the intent of the ban in the first place.