UITHOORN, Netherlands — A small Dutch city less than 20 kilometres from Amsterdam's Schiphol airport has become the hub of Europe's sales of khat, a plant chewed for its stimulant qualities, soon to be banned in the Netherlands.
In a discreet warehouse tucked away in the city of Uithoorn, around a hundred Somalis and Yemenis were haggling over the latest delivery: a tonne of khat.
"The arrival of the delivery varies daily, depending on the flight from Kenya," said a khat importer of the plant which drug authorities say produces a natural amphetamine when chewed.
"As soon as we know when, we pass the word by telephone and the buyers arrive at the right time," said the Somali importer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Three khat deliveries a day, weighing about a tonne each, are taken to Uithoorn by truck from Amsterdam-Schiphol airport, 15 kilometres (nine miles) to the northwest. From Uithoorn it is sold to wholesale dealers and then resold throughout Europe.
But 15 of the European Union's 27 states and Norway have already listed khat as an illegal narcotic and the Netherlands too announced earlier this month it would ban khat.
Local businesses have also complained about the commotion at the "khat market," one of the reasons for the Dutch decision.
"Some days there may be more than 200 cars in the street," sighed Uithoorn mayor Dagmar Oudhoorn.
Residents are tired, she said, adding "there is a real fear of crime and traffic problems."
"Today it's relatively calm, but there are days when things heat up a bit," added one khat buyer, a Somali from Germany. "Three or four times a year, knives are even drawn, usually over unpaid debts," he added.
Smiling khat buyers left as quickly as they arrived, carrying two or three cardboard boxes in their arms.
Each box contained about fifty bundles made up of 20 khat stems of 30 centimetres (12 inches) in length, wrapped in banana leaves.
"I came to buy about 300 bundles of khat which I am going to get to Norway tonight," a 27-year-old Somali told AFP.
"I buy them here for 2.5 euros $3.3) a bundle and in Norway they are sold for 25 euros a bundle. Not a bad business, eh?" he said smiling, but like everybody else at the market, declining to give his name.
This buyer however is pressed for time. The khat needs to be consumed fresh, within 48-hours of being picked, he said.
Two-thirds of the khat at Uithoorn were exported illegally from the Netherlands, mainly to Scandinavia, the Somali importer told AFP.
The bundles will be sold mainly in khat houses where Somalis traditionally gather to chew it, while mulling over the latest news, including about friends and family back home in Africa.
Somali khat traders said they could not understand why the Dutch are banning khat.
"It's ridiculous. They put I don't know how many millions of euros in their pockets in import taxes," the Somali importer said crossly.
"Chewing khat is one of our traditions. Why ban it?" said another buyer, angered by what he called a "lack of tolerance."
But while some Somali khat buyers said they won't break Dutch laws, others seemed unconcerned.
"You know, we always find a solution," said one smiling buyer.
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