Herding Khat

Side Effects May Include Lethargy and Refusal to Cooperate

On January 11th the  BBC reported that the Netherlands government would ban the use of khat—the mild, leaf-based stimulant produced largely in East Africa.  The ban came as something as a surprise, given the liberal Dutch approach to cannabis and the ubiquity of “Coffee Shops” selling joints in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities.  Why this apparent inconsistency?  The answer becomes clear in the comments of the immigration minister, Gerd Leers, who oddly enough, announced the ban.  According to Leers’s comments on Dutch radio, “I’m involved in the ban because it appears to cause serious problems, particularly in the Somali community.”  He went on to claim that 10% of Somali men in the Netherlands were “badly affected” by khat consumption.  According to the minister, “they are lethargic and refuse to co-operate with the government or take responsibility for themselves or their families.”

Khat (often called miraa in East Africa) is the only Africa-produced drug to develop any kind of international market.  It is chewed on a large scale in Ethiopia, Somalia and elsewhere in East Africa, where truck drivers use it to remain alert.  I first encountered it in the 1970s, when I was briefly stranded on the Kenya-Tanzania border and some friendly drivers tutored me in its use.  I can’t say that it did much for me, except keep me awake enough to snag a ride to Nairobi. 

Read more

A Debate for the Ages, Part II: What’s God Got to Do With It? David Wilkerson, Teen Challenge, and Evangelical Anti-Drug Activism

Editor’s Note: In this, the second installment of Points’ “A Debate for the Ages” series, Emily Dufton discusses the enormous popular success of Teen Challenge, a program that, by virtue of its embrace by evangelicals and Republican Presidents, has had a major impact on the modern state of youth drug treatment.

David Wilkerson, Man of God.

When Reverend David Wilkerson, a Pentecostal minister with the Assemblies of God church, died on April 27, 2011 at the age of 79, there was a monumental outpouring of grief among those who viewed Wilkerson as a savior, the archetypal man of God who was responsible for changing the destinies of thousands of lost and drug-addled youths.  Wilkerson was the founder of Teen Challenge, a Christian rehabilitation program he began in 1958, one of the first ministries in America to cater specifically to inner city, non-white, drug- and gang-involved youth. Wilkerson’s immersion program saw drug abusers live a structured Christian life for one year and work towards sobriety. The first branch set up in Brooklyn, New York, but Teen Challenge quickly expanded to include over 1,000 centers both in the United States and abroad, and it now considers itself “one of the most successful addiction recovery programs in the world, with a 70 to 86% success rate.” Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush have all supported Teen Challenge, and evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have applauded Wilkerson’s work.

As popular with politicians as he was, it was with the public where Wilkerson found his warmest response. In 1962, Wilkerson published his memoir about establishing Teen Challenge, The Cross and the Switchblade. The book was enormous success, selling eleven million copies in its first ten years in print. Wilkerson’s message spread even more widely with the release, and widespread popular acclaim, of a commercial film version of his memoir in 1970. (Fun facts: the film starred Christian pop music hero Pat Boone as Wilkerson and Erik Estrada – from CHiPs! – in his film debut, portraying gang warlord Nicky Cruz.) The popularity of the book and film skyrocketed Wilkerson to international fame.

Wilkerson used Teen Challenge as both an institutional and media tool to address growing concerns over drug use and juvenile delinquency. Disregard for authority, the seriousness of the crimes committed by those under eighteen, and the postwar baby boom (which was populating America with more potential delinquents) concerned everyone from suburban mothers to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who reported in 1953 that, nationally, “persons under the age of 18 committed 53.6 percent of all car thefts; 49.3 percent of all burglaries; 18 percent of all robberies, and 16.2 percent of all rapes.” The common response to this threat – a response heartily supported by Hoover – was to incarcerate these delinquents and remove them from society, particularly if their crimes involved drug abuse. Teen Challenge offered a different approach, even though drug trafficking routes interrupted by World War II were reestablished by the early 1960s and narcotics addiction was steadily increasing. Wilkerson’s claims that personal conversion and individual responsibility could defeat drug addiction resonated loudly among those trying to quell the looming drug scourge.

Read more