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