SOME TWO DECADES ago Minnesota’s Hennepin County attorney, now-Sen. Amy Klobuchar, prosecuted the possession of khat, an herbal stimulant grown in Northeast Africa and the Arabian peninsula. It is used widely in social gatherings as an equivalent to drinking coffee or tea, and has also been used as an Indigenous tribal medicine.
Though khat is an illegal narcotic in the U.S., with its most active chemical prohibited by the Drug Enforcement Administration alongside heroin and LSD, there’s a widespread understanding among communities using khat socially, criminal justice reform advocates, and scholars that its potential harms are similar to those of chewing tobacco.
At a time when khat-related prosecutions were rare, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported in 1999 that as county prosecutor, Klobuchar defended charging people for using it “despite the cultural usage of khat and its legal status in the offenders’ native country.” An attorney for six Somali defendants she prosecuted said it made little sense for law enforcement to expend resources on a drug that has effects similar to that of “a Scandinavian cup of coffee.”
“The county has spent so much time, money and effort on what is a social gathering in the Somali community, like meeting for a cup of coffee,” attorney Rene Clemenson told the Associated Press at the time. “It’s sad because it has seriously affected the Somali community, which in my experience is industrious and hardworking.”