Most of the readers here know what I think about the Drug War. I’d like to end it, and I’d love to roll back the drug laws — not all the way to the Middle Ages, but to the days when my father was a kid. Say, back to 1913 — the year Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” was first performed. It seems that in the haste to modernize the world, busybodies decided that the government ought to get into the business of deciding not only how much of our money we’re allowed to keep, but what we are allowed to put in our bodies. In a flurry of “progressive” legislation, they abolished the founders’ taxation philosophy with the 16th Amendment, changed way the Senate is elected with the 17th Amendment, passed the Harrison Narcotic Act, and then finally enacted Prohibition with the “telltale” 18th Amendment. At least income taxation, the Senate change, and Prohibition were enacted in a constitutional manner; the criminalization of drugs was simply unauthorized Big Brotherism, and probably the biggest single leap towards Nanny State government that the country had yet seen.
I realize that people disagree with me on the drug war, and I know that repealing the laws is almost utopian thinking.
But do we really need to be expanding them?
An innocuous shrub with relatively mild effects, Catha edulis (known as “khat“) has been chewed for countless centuries, mainly in the Mideast. Its effects are similar to drinking strong coffee, and it has never caused any major problems anywhere. Had it not been for the Gulf War (and the war in Somalia), the only Americans who even knew about it would have been Mideast scholars and a few travelers. But servicemen discovered it while they were over there, and one thing led to another. In 1993, headline-grabbing bureaucrats added it to the endlessly expanding “Schedule 1” controlled narcotic list.
And so today I opened the Inquirer to see a scare headline — “Exotic shrub a choice of cabbies. Seizure of ‘khat’ a first encounter for Phila. police.” I don’t know whether the idea is to get us all on board with more anti-drug hysteria and yet another newly created criminal problem, but I do so tire of reading — and blogging — about these things. Yet if I don’t complain, who will?
So, on to the “problem”:

An ancient drug has found a new illegal market in Philadelphia.
The drug, khat, is a stimulant with varying degrees of potency. It is found in the leaf of an evergreen shrub from East Africa and the Arabian peninsula, both places where it is widely used.
Philadelphia police said yesterday they seized 740 pounds of khat wrapped in burlap and packed in 17 boxes in a house in East Falls on Wednesday.
Inspector Aaron Horne said nobody had been arrested but investigators had a “person of interest.” The seizure apparently was the first of its kind in Pennsylvania.
“We’ve never experienced khat before,” Horne said, adding that police contacted their counterparts in New York to determine what they had found.
Horne said that authorities believe the market for khat is within the city’s African immigrant community but that they wanted to alert the public to the drug’s existence because it is cheap and may have moved outside its traditional market.
“Unsuspecting parents might not recognize it as a drug,” he said. “One tip-off is if you see your kid take a sudden interest in ‘chewing tobacco.’ “

I guess it’s necessary to stir up the mommies, and in the interest of “society” to have them worry that junior might be chewing something which “may have moved outside its traditional market.” Whether it has, who knows. Soon it will, because in our monkey-see, monkey-do culture, all you need to do to stimulate interest is make something illegal, run a few scary looking articles, and every young delinquent looking to be cool will line up to be the first on his block. Voila! More laws mean more crime! (But surely they knew….)

The active chemicals in khat – which predates coffee – are ingested by chewing the leaf or brewing it as tea.
Abdelgabr Adam, a gastroenterologist from Sudan, said he knew khat was being consumed in Philadelphia.
“It’s used here all the time, especially by those who drive cabs, those who want to stay up all night,” he said.
He said that despite its acceptance in some communities, khat is still a dangerous substance. “Like any other amphetamine, it is dangerous,” Adam said.
In one West Philadelphia neighborhood yesterday, a man from Burkina Faso, who asked not to be identified by name, also confirmed khat’s presence in the city.
“A lot of people use it, a lot of taxi drivers,” he said.
In the places where the shrub Catha edulis is grown, khat is often sold by roadsides and is widely used by truckers.
But it is banned in the United States and other countries because it contains the stimulant cathinone when it it is fresh, or cathine, when it is dry.

No, it’s not banned because it contains cathinone; it’s banned only because the U.S. troops brought some back and the busybody bureaucrats who wanted more power were shocked to learn that a little known shrub which might keep you awake was not illegal.

Cathinone is a powerful Schedule 1 narcotic under federal law, and cathine is a less potent Schedule 4 narcotic.
Horne said the seized khat was dry and qualified as a Schedule 4 narcotic.
Besides acting as a stimulant, khat can induce a sense of euphoria and sometimes psychosis, officials said.
British researchers earlier this year reported that out of 20 addictive substances, khat ranked last in harmfulness as assessed by health, crime and science professionals surveyed.

Yes, and what the article fails to point out is that the study ranked khat as less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco.
Furthermore, khat is a cultural tradition, and persecution of khat users runs afoul of now-traditional multiculturalism! (Hmm… There might even be a religious issue, akin to peyote. Um, yes, there was. But it wasn’t explored.)
Anyway, color me unimpressed by the “danger” factor. But there’s the newly inflated “street value”:

The 740-pound khat seizure has a street value of $140,000 compared with $100,000 for a kilo – or 2.2 pounds – of cocaine, said Horne.

Is it really worth that? I don’t think it should be, but if it is, we have the DEA, drug hysteria, and a newly manufactured black market to thank.
I really think that if tobacco and coffee were newly discovered and brought back U.S. troops, they’d be put in Schedule 1 by the geniuses who want to run our lives.
The fascinating thing about khat is I have seen it go from no problem at all to a front page headline “problem” with all the “street value” nonsense that goes with it, in just 14 years.
The War on Khat strikes me as the Drug War in microcosm.
UPDATE: As a commenter has pointed out that khat can have side effects, it’s worth noting that reports of psychosis are rare.
Should exceptional reports of psychosis be enough to justify adding a substance to the drug war?
Well, what about the numerous studies confirming caffeine psychosis?