WITH a smile, Ali told me that it will be the trip of a lifetime.
Unforgettable. The room fell silent as he spoke, the men at the tables watched as he spelled out the details of the deal. All I had to do was travel to New York with two suitcases, check into a first- class hotel and wait for the pickup.
I was to be paid a fee and expenses to cover airfares and the hotel. As soon as the consignment was collected, I could do as I liked. "Enjoy yourself," Ali said, smiling again.
We were in a shabby room overlooking a London high street.
Around 20 men were sitting on sofas and at tables - watching and, it seemed, willing me to accept Ali's illegal proposal. They all knew what the suitcases would contain.
The stuff was all around us, and I could see what it was doing to the men who were chewing it. Their eyes were glazed, bloodshot. Some were animated, others seemed stupefied. These are the visible effects of the drug they call murungi. The hidden effects can be terrifying.
Murungi is a potent form of khat, or qat - a leaf which, when chewed and absorbed into the bloodstream, produces a sense of wellbeing and boundless energy. In high doses it can cause hallucinations, paranoia and madness.
Ali, who wanted me to smuggle two cases of it into America - where it is banned as a dangerous narcotic - is London's Mr Murungi.
He operates from a place they call Cafe Buz in Old Southall. It is one of several murungi dens in this area, places where men come to buy the drug and sit around for hours, chewing and getting high.
Some well-intentioned community workers say the leaf is part of the culture of certain ethnic minorities, especially those from eastern Africa and Yemen.
Muslims use it as a substitute for alcohol, they say.
According to the benign view of murungi, it is relatively harmless and it is not banned in Britain.
But there is a growing body of opinion that says murungi is a pernicious drug that takes an appalling toll on those who use it.
The World Health Organisation has ordered a study of its effects after worrying reports from medical authorities. With good reason. An Evening Standard investigation into murungi revealed that London has become the hub of an illicit international trade. The leaves are grown in Kenya and Ethiopia and flown into Heathrow daily.
One of the biggest importers was Amarjit Chohan, the Asian businessman whose body was found floating off Bournemouth pier last month. He had been murdered. His wife Nancy, mother-in-law Charanjit Kaur and two infant sons are still missing, presumed dead.
Mr Chohan brought large quantities of murungi into Britain through his company, and there are suspicions that his murder and the disappearance of his family are connected to drug dealing.
One man has been charged with his murder and two others are being hunted by police. Smuggling murungi into the United States is a major growth area among narcotics dealers. In 1992 US customs seized 800kg.
In 2001 they seized an astonishing 37 tonnes - a 5,000 per cent increase. In America, where its use is spreading beyond minority ethnic groups to college kids and the ghettos, it commands a street price that makes it a highly lucrative commodity for smugglers - men like Ali.
He was described to me as the man who knew everything about importing and exporting murungi. When we met he was relaxed and friendly and keen to recruit me to what he said was his team of couriers. We talked at Cafe Buz, where he is a respected figure. Around 25 years old, welldressed and charming, he stands out among the sad-looking characters chewing themselves into a stupor.
Ali claimed he made regular murungi deliveries all over the United States.
In Britain it is prized for its affordability - around pounds 10 for a handful of leafy stalks, enough for a 24-hour "buzz" - but in America its illegality makes it more expensive. The Drugs Enforcement Agency estimated the street price at up to $50 - around pounds 30 for a bunch.
"I use four to five different airlines to fly the stuff to the United States," Ali said. "I want you to go to New York. How would you like to spend two nights in Manhattan?"
He laughed expansively. He said he sends five people a week across the Atlantic, and he outlined the type of person he required for the job. "You have to be British with a British passport," he said. "I like using young people like yourself because they look confident and innocent.
You must dress well, wear a suit and do not be afraid. You will not be stopped. I have many people doing this for me. You can meet them if you wish." It was obvious from his relaxed manner that he felt secure in the fastness of Cafe Buz, surrounded by his friends. Some suck on shisha pipes and a sign, hung among the African tapestries on the wall, reads: "VIP Lounge. Minimum charge pounds 7".
AT pounds 5 a bunch for the best Ethiopian murungi, f lown in fresh to Heathrow, VIP status comes cheap at Cafe Buz. This is one of the reasons the drug is causing such concern.
One of Ali's associates joins the discussion, saying: "You will fly to New York tomorrow. You will stay two nights or more if you wish.
Then you will fly home. If you like it, you can tell your friends and they can go too."
But what about the risk? "We lose maybe only one per cent of the suitcases that we send to America," Ali said smoothly.
"And even then, they will not arrest you. If they find what is in the cases they will take the cases and throw them away and they will send you back to England. But you will not be arrested."
Really? Are the notoriously stringent US customs officers so relaxed in their attitude to murungi? Of course they are not. DEA spokesman Will Glaspy told me: "There are two substances in khat which are classified as controlled substances in the United States.
These are cathinone and cathine. If we were to find someone bringing two cases of khat into the country they would almost certainly be arrested.
"There is no maximum sentence for this offence. For some drug offences here you can be sentenced to life imprisonment."
It is unlikely that a young person, offending for the first time, would receive such a penalty. But smuggling murungi into the United States could be disastrous for a "mule", as couriers of banned substances are known.
Ali contributed to my sense that there was something sinister, and a whiff of the underworld, about the entire enterprise when he told me: "I will call you tomorrow and tell you where to meet me. You will not come here again - I do not want your face to be known.
"When you get the call you will put on a suit, take some nice clothes for your holiday and come to meet me.
We will then take you to Heathrow.
When you get to America someone will collect the bags. They will pay for the hotel - two days - and take the bags from you.
"They will also give you pounds 250 spending money. Don't worry about it. You won't get caught. I have been sending people to America like this for 10 years." He smiled again and put his hand on my arm. "You can trust me," he said. Despite claims in some quarters that murungi is little more than a mild stimulant, it is illegal not just in the US but most of Europe. And community leaders among the ethnic groups that use it say it is dangerous.
Dr Iain Murray-Lyon is a gastroenterologist at Charing Cross Hospital and has studied the effects of the generic leaf, khat, on long-term users. He said: "There are some reports of people becoming psychotic with heavy use, although that's rare.
"I had one patient who was a Yemeni student and a heavy user, and was in a schizophrenic state.
"He was paranoid and quite illogical and had all sorts of delusional ideas.
He was immediately admitted under the Mental Health Act."
The drugs charity Drugscope said: "Khat is a stimulant drug with effects similar to amphetamine.
Chewing it makes people feel more alert and talkative and suppresses the appetite, though users describe an ensuing calming effect when used over a few hours.
"Regular use may lead to insomnia, anorexia and anxiety. In some cases it may make people feel more irritable and angry and possibly violent.
Psychological dependence can result from regular use so that users feel depressed and low unless they keep taking it." This is what makes murungi so dangerous, according to Hassan Isse of the Somali Khat Project - set up to try to protect users from the ill-effects of the drug. He said that, in Somalia, khat leaves are chewed as a recreational and social stimulant.
But in Britain expatriates abuse it and end up mentally ill.
Hassan said: "In some parts of London five or six out of every 10 people in mental health units are Somalis. Most of their problems are linked to khat.
And the trouble is that, when they come out of the units, there is no programme to help them. So, a year later, they are straight back in."
THE worrying trend is that murungi use is beginning to spread beyond the ethnic groups to young people for whom it provides a cheap fix. One 19-year-old said: "You start chewing at three in the afternoon and you're still going 24 hours later."
Drug workers estimate there are around 1,000 shops selling khat leaves, including murungi and the less potent hereri, in London.
Tonnes of it arrive fresh at Heathrow every day. As Ali explained to me, there is no shortage of supply. I said I would consider his offer and we parted at Cafe Buz. In the street, a group of men lounged listlessly, their eyes bloodshot, telltale green flecks at the corner of their mouths. Here, and on the other side of the Atlantic, people like this are making Ali rich - certainly rich enough to tempt young women into risking their liberty to undertake a "trip of a lifetime".
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