SEATTLE — It is a stimulant and social elixir widely used in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and it is one with more than 40 street names in this country, including khat, chat, gat, qat, African salad, Abyssinian tea and Somali tea.
But, as federal drug guidelines put it: "There is no legitimate use for khat in the United States."
With that stark reminder, federal agents arrested 14 members of Seattle's Somali community recently, part of what the Drug Enforcement Administration hailed as a "coordinated takedown" of a 44-person trafficking ring that had smuggled about 25 tons of khat -- with an estimated street value of $10 million -- from Africa into U.S. cities.
The cases may unwind as clear violations of U.S. drug laws, but among Somali immigrants here and elsewhere, reaction has been more complicated. Many insist that the laws are based on a misunderstanding of the role of khat -- generally pronounced "cot," and either chewed or brewed like a tea -- in their society.
"It is not a drug that makes people crazy or aggressive," said Ali Abdirazak, 48, a Somali American school counselor, who said the arrests were "unfortunate." Many members of the Somali community view the stimulant as more akin to a strong cup of coffee than a dangerous menace, Abdirazak said.
One court-appointed lawyer said he was considering a "cultural defense" for his client, a man arrested in Seattle.
As the lawyer, Terry Kellogg, put it: "Khat is more like caffeine than anything else. If these defendants wind up in prison, then so should Howard Schultz," the chairman of Starbucks.
Federal authorities say the couriers, middlemen and street sellers involved in the khat trade were all engaged in clearly illegal activities, with proceeds laundered and at least one transaction marked by a death threat from the dealer.
In several cases, packages of khat for "John Smith," "John Kerry" and other obviously fictitious recipients were sent via delivery services to the Somali men involved in the operation, according to an affidavit in the case. One defendant, employed at the United Nations, allegedly used diplomatic pouches to smuggle the plant into this country.
But Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, Minn., described the recent arrests as "a classic cultural clash" in which, he said, some defendants told him they did not know they were breaking the law.
"Their way of looking at it, where they are coming from, is that khat has been around for a very, very long time," Jamal said in a telephone interview. "So, it is shock and disbelief to hear that this is illegal." Jamal noted that khat is not banned in England, Germany, Holland and other European countries.
Ignorance of the law is, of course, a risky line of defense before any jury. Federal authorities are clearly skeptical that anyone involved in the surreptitious buying and selling of khat could have thought they were acting legally.
"These defendants were looking to make easy money at the expense of their fellow immigrants," said John McKay, the U.S. attorney in Seattle. "We will not let their greed shatter the hopes and dreams of other hard-working immigrant families who have fled the chaos of their homeland."
The Minneapolis-St. Paul area is home to a large Somali immigrant population and 14 of the men arrested in the crackdown. Other suspects were arrested in New York, Boston and Columbus, Ohio, as well as Seattle.
In announcing the arrests, John P. Gilbride, the special agent in charge of the DEA's New York office, described khat as "highly addictive and devastating" to the people who use it.
Federal drug guidelines say khat contains a psychoactive ingredient, cathinone, that is chemically similar to amphetamine.
Many Somalis say khat creates only a mild buzz that is not dangerous and, unlike alcohol, does not impair judgment or motor skills. Used in moderation, they say, it stimulates or enhances conversation.
In some cases, they say, people use it as they do caffeine -- to stay awake.
None of the defendants in the recent crackdown has spoken publicly, and some leaders in Seattle's Somali community were careful to say that although use of the stimulant was acceptable in their native country, they were not advocating that U.S. laws be flouted.
"I cannot agree that the law can be broken just because people are free to use khat back where they came from," said Mohamed Abdi, the president of Somali Community Services of Seattle, at one of the group's recent Saturday lunches. "But I do know that many people feel khat is not understood in this country at all."