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Drug is Kenya's boon .... or bane

To the untrained eye, it's just a banana leaf tacked to a door sill. To the connoisseur, it's a sign that the J-G Store lives up to its claim: Quality Miraa.

"This is the best," says John, the clerk, unwrapping a small bundle of stems with reddish-green leaves. "It's very tasty."

Nearby, a few customers nod in happy agreement, well on their way to the euphoric buzz that helps soften the squalor of one of Nairobi's worst slums.

Also known as khat (pronounced cot), miraa is a natural stimulant derived from a shrub that flourishes in Kenya and other parts of East Africa. The stems and leaves are harvested daily, wrapped in banana leaves to stay fresh and sold in hundreds of ramshackle joints like J-G, where the bright green leaf over the door signals that a new shipment has arrived.

The miraa trade doesn't end there. Legal in many countries, miraa is so popular it has become one of Kenya's chief exports, still behind tea but now ahead of coffee.

Every day, planes from 747s to twin-engine Beechcraft carry tons of miraa to Europe, the Middle East and other parts of Africa.

"It's a very big business for us," says Yatich Kangugo, manager of Nairobi's Wilson Airport. He estimates that half of Wilson's annual revenues derive from miraa shipments to neighboring Somalia, where chewing the stems and leaves is almost a national pastime.

Miraa is banned in the United States, which lists its main compound, cathinone, as a Schedule I substance, the same as heroin and ecstasy.

While the $250-million-a-year export trade is a boon to Kenya's struggling economy, there is growing concern that miraa is hurting society.

A recent survey found that almost a fourth of all students in Nairobi use miraa, many in the belief it will help them stay awake while reading. In eastern Kenya, with a large population of Somali origin, almost 80 percent of adults chew the substance.

Kenya's passion for miraa drew international attention last month when a Kenyan boxer was expelled from the Olympics because he failed a drug test. It turned out he had been chewing miraa on the plane to Athens, Greece.

"It is no longer a secret that drug abuse is increasingly becoming a serious problem in the country," a Nairobi paper said, citing miraa in particular.

Concern over miraa even spills into politics. East Africans have cheered the news that warring factions in Somalia are making progress in peace talks that could lead to the first functioning government there since 1991. But some delegates to the talks, held in Nairobi, worry that the Somali obsession with miraa could undermine negotiations.

"Our men have become lazy over the years because of the widespread trade that forces them to just sit and enjoy the product," Eng Rukia Osman, an anti-miraa activist, told the Inter-Press Service.

"Our children have nothing to eat, let alone go to school, because their fathers cannot work. Now that peace is in the air we have to look at ways of reconstructing the country in all respects."

Throughout East Africa and the Middle East, miraa has long been popular among Muslims who consider it an acceptable alternative to alcohol and other mood-altering substances frowned on by Islam. Many Muslims chew it during the fasting month of Ramadan because it suppresses the appetite.

Miraa comes from the Catha edulis plant, a bushy shrub that can grow to 20 feet. The leaves contain cathinone, which produces a euphoric effect similar to amphetamines, and cathine, a less stimulating substance.

Within 48 hours after the plant has been cut, the cathinone starts to degrade, leaving only the milder cathine. Thus the preference for fresh leaves.

Customers usually buy a half pound of miraa at a time, with prices in Kenya ranging from $1.50 to almost $10, depending on the quality. The bark is stripped off with the teeth and chewed along with the leaves, gradually producing large wads of miraa that cause the cheeks to bulge out chipmunk-style.

Aficionados say miraa keeps them happy and alert for long periods.

"It sharpens the brain," says Steven Sande, who drives a matatu, or minibus. "If I chew I can work 24 hours and not be tired."

Critics complain that the use of miraa by matatu drivers contributes to the appalling accident rate. But Sande, 28, says he rarely chews miraa at work, instead buying it only on weekends "when I have time to relax and meet with friends."

Although not addictive, miraa can have side effects, including depression, sleeplessness and, in chronic users, anorexia. Banned in the United States, miraa is legal in Britain, the Netherlands and other places with large Somali communities.

About 1 a.m. each day, pickup trucks begin arriving at Wilson Airport with burlap sacks of miraa, picked just hours before in small groves a few hundred miles north of Nairobi. Security at the airport was increased last year when Kenyan authorities uncovered an apparent plot to use a miraa plane to attack the U.S Embassy. All flights to Somalia were halted _ causing panic among Somalian miraa-lovers _ and miraa planes have since been barred from carrying passengers.

On a recent night, a few police watched as two airport screeners searched the sacks by hand and with metal detectors. Dogs sometimes join the screeners, but they sniff only the outside of the sacks because their drool could affect the miraa's taste.

As dawn breaks, small planes _ each carrying a ton of miraa _ begin taking off for Mogadishu and other Somali cities. Because the country has no government, warlords handle the trade on the other end.

"You have to be okayed by whatever warlord controls whatever place you're going," says M.A. Adnan, manager of flight operations for Bluebird Aviation, one of Kenya's main miraa transporters.

When it got into the miraa business a decade ago, Bluebird sent as many as 15 planes a day to Somalia. Now, there are just two or three, with the company making most of its money from safari flights and other charter operations, Adnan says.

The demand for miraa peaked during and immediately after Somalia's civil war, when, Adnan speculates, Somalis were desperate for something to help ease their stress. "Now the economic situation has perhaps dictated a drop-off," he says.

The finest quality miraa _ known as A grade _ is flown on commercial flights from Kenyatta International Airport to London and Amsterdam. Regardless of where the miraa departs from, the goal is to get it from grove to mouth within a day.

"It's like flowers _ it must be fresh," says Kangugo, the Wilson Airport manager.

Underscoring the widespread acceptance of miraa, the airport prohibits employees from smoking, but has no rules against chewing miraa. And while Bluebird's Adnan says he never touches the stuff himself, he doesn't object to those who do.

"It's been there since time immemorial and as long as it's legal, I have no problem with it."

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at susansptimes.com

Miraa

Also known as khat, this plant has been used for centuries as a recreational and religious drug in East Africa and parts of the Middle East. It is used socially in a way that is similar to coffee in other parts of the world. The plan can be smoked, chewed like tobacco, made into tea or a paste or sprinkled on food. It has a stimulant and euphoric effect.

STREET NAMES: Abyssinian tea, Khat African salad, oat, chat and catha.

Side effects include:

+ Anorexia

+ Tachycardia

+ Hypertension

+ Insomnia

+ Gastric disorders.

Abuse can lead to exhaustion, violence and suicidal depression.

Miraa is legal in many countries throughout the world, but is illegal in the United States.

Seizures of miraa in U.S. ports (metric tons)

'96 17.6

'97 21.1

'98 27.6

'99 22.1

'00 33.8

'01 37.2

'02 47.7

'03 70.1

Source: U.S. Customs Service, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

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