To many immigrants from Africa, the mildly narcotic drug khat is viewed as no more harmful than a cup of coffee, but U.S. law-enforcement officials are concerned that the “flower of paradise” is a growing drug threat, the Los Angeles Times reported Jan. 3.

Residents of the Ethiopian, Somali, and Yemeni communities in places like Washington, D.C., chew dried khat leaves socially, and use is accepted even through khat is illegal in the U.S. “It is a very touchy subject. Some people see it like a drug; some people see it like coffee,” said Abdulaziz Kamus, president of the African Resource Center in Washington, D.C. “You have to understand our background and understand the significance of it in our community.”

Anti-khat law enforcement has been increased as demand for the drug has grown in immigrant communities in D.C. and San Diego. The main active ingredient in khat, cathinone, is banned in 28 states and the federal government. The World Health Organization says the drug can be addictive and lead to psychological and social problems as well as high blood pressure, insomnia, anorexia, constipation, and malaise.

“It is not coffee. It is definitely not like coffee,” said Garrison Courtney, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. “It is the same drug used by young kids who go out and shoot people in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is something that gives you a heightened sense of invincibility, and when you look at those effects, you could take out the word ’khat’ and put in ’heroin’ or ’cocaine’.”

U.S. officials also worry that refined versions of khat could emerge, as they have in Israel.

Some traditional khat-using communities condemn the restrictions, while others welcome attempts to control khat because of its links to domestic abuse and other family problems. “I have seen what it does,” said Starlin Mohamud, a Somali immigrant writing a dissertation on khat at San Diego State University. “Families who are trying to make ends meet on a daily basis cannot afford it. It just creates so many problems between a husband and wife to the point where a broken family is going to be the result.”