D.C. seeks tougher penalties for khat

By chillinwill · Oct 13, 2008 · ·
  1. chillinwill
    The District is moving to stiffen penalties for a little-known drug that authorities suspect is used by cabdrivers in the city to stay alert and to finance terrorism overseas.

    Parts of the khat plant - a flowering evergreen shrub native to East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula - when fresh can produce effects similar to those of cocaine. Chewing the leaves is socially acceptable in countries such as Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia.

    In the District and elsewhere across the country, officials are noticing and combating the drug's use: In 2004, federal agents seized 3,000 pounds of khat worth more than $5 million at the Port of Baltimore. The Metropolitan Police Department in May arrested nearly three dozen people and seized 30 pounds of khat during a raid in the Northwest neighborhood of Shaw.

    "If you compare what we're seeing today to like five, 10 years ago, it's definitely growing," said Inspector Brian Bray, commander of the Metropolitan Police Department's Narcotics and Special Investigations division. "A lot of people didn't know what it was before."


    D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat, this month included a proposal that would make fresh khat - which contains the alkaloid cathinone that produces a stimulant effect - a Schedule I drug under D.C. law, as it is under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

    The move, if approved by the D.C. Council, would mean a person caught in possession of cathinone-containing fresh khat and intending to manufacture or distribute the plant could face prison time.

    Under current city statutes, cathinone - which dissipates gradually after the plant is harvested - is not listed as a controlled substance and warrants no prison sentence. However, a large seizure of the substance in the city could warrant prosecution under federal law, which calls for a sentence of up to 20 years in prison for possession with intent to distribute, said Patricia Riley, special counsel to the U.S. attorney for the District, Jeffrey A. Taylor.

    When not fresh, khat still contains the weaker alkaloid cathine, which is 10 times less potent but considered a Schedule IV substance under D.C. and federal law. In the District, possession with intent to manufacture or distributing cathine can result in a maximum prison sentence of three years.

    Mr. Fenty's proposal follows a request by the U.S. attorney's office in the District, acting D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles said. Miss Riley said the District's law regarding khat should be consistent with federal statutes. The potency of cathinone also makes the change necessary, she said.

    "Law enforcement has intercepted fresh khat coming into the city, and it made sense to change the statute to reflect the more serious drug," Miss Riley said.

    Inspector Bray said police are in favor of the proposed change and that the move would aid efforts to fight the drug in the city. He said prosecutors had been reluctant to pursue khat cases in the past.

    "Why lock them up when you get a slap on the wrist for a schedule IV that the attorney's office does not want to prosecute?" said city Detective Lorenzo James, of the narcotics and special investigations unit. "I can tell you when you get it to a Schedule I, a lot of things are going to change."

    Khat is generally sent to the United States via couriers who put the plant in their suitcases, or it is sent by express mail, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The plant is purchased from farmers in the Horn of Africa, then sent in the planes of area warlords to Europe, where it is sold to middlemen and shipped to the United States, the DEA said.

    Detective James said American women are occasionally hired as khat couriers, or "mules." The plant is packed with dry ice when shipped and freeze-dried upon its arrival to preserve its freshness.

    In the United States, khat can sell for as much as $600 a kilogram or $60 for a bundle of 40 leafed twigs, according to the DEA. Merchants on the Internet advertise khat seeds for sale, and Detective James said the plant is sold in some D.C. restaurants "under the table."

    "If you go into [ethnic] restaurants and think you can purchase it, they stop talking," he said. "They act like they don't know what you're talking about."

    The DEA said two years ago that evidence suggested money from sales of the drug was being sent back to Europe and the Middle East, and Inspector Bray said officers have investigated "a lot of cases we believe are linked to terrorism."

    Detective James said his investigations have not been able to establish a link from khat to overseas terrorism. But he said those involved in the District's khat trade are using hawalas - informal systems to transfer money that have been tied to terrorists in the past - and are continually moving money out of bank accounts.

    "The money is not being kept here," he said.

    In 2003, Steven C. McCraw, assistant director of the FBI's Office of Intelligence, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Somalia's largest militant Islamist organization, the Al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI), was suspected of smuggling khat into the United States.

    He said arrests and shipment seizures indicated a sharp increase in demand for the drug even then, and that proceeds from East African khat sales were probably remitted to Middle Eastern banks through wire services and hawala network.

    "It is likely that these funds pass through the hands of suspected AIAI members and other persons with possible ties to terrorist groups," Mr. McCraw said.

    FBI spokeswoman Debbie Weierman said the agency is aware of the drug but had no comment on suspected links to terrorism.

    The plant has become a viable revenue source for the Ethiopian economy, which is best known for its coffee production but has few other lucrative exports.

    Khat is used among hired drivers who take the drug to stay alert during long shifts, Inspector Bray and Detective James said. No drivers interviewed by The Washington Times said they had heard of their colleagues using khat on the job.

    Habtamu Yacob, an Ethiopian and independent cabdriver stopped Friday along Ninth Street Northwest, said he knew the drug is illegal in the United States but "when you go to Somalia or [an] African country, nobody bothers you."

    Benyan Kebede, another Ethiopian driver, working Friday at Union Station, recalled the prevalence of khat during his childhood in Africa, but said he did not use it back home and has never seen it here.

    "It's not like a drug," Mr. Kebede said. "It just wakes you up, you talk too much. It's like cabbage."

    Wondimu Asamnew, a minister counselor at the Ethiopian Embassy, in the District, said the majority of Ethiopians in the United States have adjusted to khat's status as an illegal drug and only "a very few people" go out of their way to acquire it.

    "It's not like narcotics," he said "It's addictive, of course, but people can live without it. I don't think people have a very difficult time adjusting with the [restriction] on access."

    Mr. Asamnew stressed that khat is not illegal in Ethiopia and its use is culturally acceptable in parts of the country.

    "It's like drinking coffee," he said.

    Still, Detective James said, the drug could become a major problem if lawmakers don't give it the attention it deserves.

    "It doesn't make a difference if you're selling crack, marijuana, heroin or PCP," he said. "It's illegal."

    By Gary Emerling
    Monday, October 13, 2008
    Source: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2008/oct/13/dc-seeks-tougher-penalties-for-khat/

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  1. enquirewithin
    How can they print such rubbish? Does it keep cab drivers awake whilst they finance overseas terrorism? Are the Taleban driving taxis in DC stoned on khat? It was little known and not problem, but no longer!
  2. chillinwill
    For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, residents of the Horn of Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula have partaken of khat, an evergreen plant native to the region. When the fresh leaves of the plant are chewed, they produce a mild stimulating effect. Friends of the plant liken the high to the buzz achieved from drinking strong coffee; foes, typically in law enforcement, are more apt to liken it to an amphetamine high.

    But with decades of war and internal strife in the late 20th Century, an East African diaspora occurred, with Ethiopians and Somalis scattering and creating new immigrant population centers across Europe, Australia, Canada, and the US. Not surprisingly, these emigrants brought with them their khat chewing habit.

    Khat is not illegal under international law, although two of its active compounds are. Cathinone, the more powerful, is a Schedule I drug under the 1988 UN Convention on Psychotropic Drugs, while cathine, the less powerful, is Schedule IV. Cathinone is found only in fresh leaf, degrading rapidly once the plant is harvested.

    With growing awareness of khat in recent years, a number of countries, including the US, have banned the plant. Here, fresh khat containing cathinone is a Schedule I controlled substance, the same schedule as heroin or LSD. Degraded khat containing only cathine is a Schedule IV controlled substance, like Valium, Librium, or Rohypnol.

    Alongside the federal government, 28 states have criminalized khat. Washington, DC, home to one of the nation's largest East African communities, is not among them -- yet. Under current DC law, cathinone is not a controlled substance and people caught in possession of fresh khat face no local penalties. Oddly enough, the less powerful alkaloid cathine is a controlled substance under DC law, and possession with intent to manufacture or distribute carries a prison sentence of up to three years.

    Last fall, at the urging of DC US Attorney Jeffrey Taylor, Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) introduced a proposal to criminalize fresh khat as a Schedule I drug, as it is under federal law. The DC City council is currently considering the proposal as part of its 2009 Omnibus Crime Bill and is likely to act on the measure before its session ends July 15.

    "It's sad that they want to put the resources of crime fighting against individuals from a different culture who don't have anybody except their community and try to punish them for doing what they have always done," said Abdul Aziz Kamus of the DC-based African Resource Center. "It seems like DC wants to punish hard-working immigrant taxi drivers who are law-abiding citizens."

    Kamus related the tale of an immigrant taxi driver who sought help from his office a few months ago. "This guy was a father of four, and he was terrified because they caught him buying khat and he had to go to court," he said. "He said: 'I didn't commit any crime, I bought this leaf to chew while I work 16 hours to support my family.' Why should the government want to punish him?"

    Good question. The answer appears to be a combination of reflexive prohibitionist responses to new drug challenges, concerns about the impact of khat use on family life among elements of the East African community, and so far unsubstantiated fears that profits from the khat trade may be flowing into the hands of Al Qaeda-linked Islamic radicals in Yemen and Somalia.

    "Law enforcement has intercepted fresh khat coming into the city, and it made sense to change the statute to reflect the more serious drug," Assistant US Attorney Patricia Riley told the Washington Times when the measure was introduced last fall. District law should be consistent with federal law, she said, adding that the potency of cathinone warranted the schedule bump.

    DC Metro Police Detective Lorenzo James, who works narcotics and special investigations, told the Times that while he had not been able to develop evidence of khat profits funding terrorists, he was still suspicious. Khat traders in DC are using hawalas, or informal money transfer systems common to South Asia and the Middle East that have been tied to terrorists in the past, James said. "The money is not being kept here," he said.

    Detective James was all for toughening the khat laws. "Why lock them up when you get a slap on the wrist for a schedule IV that the attorney's office does not want to prosecute?" he said. "I can tell you when you get it to a Schedule I, a lot of things are going to change."

    Those reasons are not good enough for opponents of the measure, who are mobilizing to block it. Various groups and individuals have submitted testimony in a bid to kill it in the council's Judiciary Committee.

    "We've learned from past examples that prohibiting a drug doesn't necessarily change use patterns; it just ensures that more folks go to jail or prison," said Naomi Long of the Drug Policy Alliance DC Metro program. "The primary users of khat are the East African community, and the people who would be impacted would be people from the East African community, who used it in their home countries much as we consume coffee here," she added.

    "There is no evidence that recreational use is spreading among non-East Africans," said Long. "The use is based in the East African culture, and the idea that we have to clamp down on it to prevent its spread when it's not spreading is just silly," she added, deflating one argument for increased criminalization of the plant.

    Long also challenged the alleged terrorist connection. "I don't think there has been any documented direct link showing a connection between khat users in the US and funding terrorism," she said. "We need to take a thoughtful approach to how we criminalize drugs here, given past experience."

    "The federal government is talking about whether terrorist organizations are using the khat trade for cash money," noted Kamus. "If they are really worried about that, they should make it legal and regulate it and tax the people who sell it."

    Kamus added another point. "It is the terrorist link they are talking about. They are not trying to say it causes crime or violence. It doesn't."

    But that's not stopping the push to more deeply criminalize the plant. Taxi drivers' wake-me-up or terrorist drug threat? If we leave it up to the law enforcers and their cronies in government, we know what the answer will be.

    from Drug War Chronicle
    Issue #588
  3. enquirewithin
    So why not ban coffee?
    That explains everything! It's associated with a minority (and black) group.
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