Pubdate: Sat, 27 Apr 2002
Source: Portland Press Herald (ME)
Copyright: 2002 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
Author: Gregory D. Kesich


The label said "documents," but the smell told FedEx workers that the 
packages contained something else.

When they looked inside, they found 60 pounds of plant roots, stems and 
leaves wrapped in bundles. A federal narcotics agent determined that they 
contained khat, a plant used as a stimulant in East Africa and on the 
Arabian Peninsula.

The next day, police arrested Abdigani Hussein, 30, of Portland, for trying 
to collect the package. They charged him with possession of cathinone, a 
controlled substance classified in the same category as cocaine, heroin and 
LSD under federal law. Hussein was arraigned in federal court this week, 
and, if convicted, faces up to 20 years in prison.

His case is the first prosecution for khat trafficking in Maine, said 
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Chapman. The prosecution also represents 
the first case to bring the traditional behavior of religious and otherwise 
law-abiding people into conflict with America's strict approach to drug 
enforcement. Hussein told police he knew what the package contained, 
according to court documents, but he has since pleaded innocent to the charges.

As immigrants from the countries of Somalia, Yemen and Ethiopia move to the 
United States, drug agents say they see more activity involving khat, 
pronounced "chot," a substance they describe as an amphetamine- type drug 
that can be addictive and can cause severe depression along with other 
serious side effects to habitual users.

Local police, such as those in Lewiston, where up to 1,000 Somali 
immigrants are scheduled to be resettled this summer, have been briefed 
about khat and its use. State drug enforcement agents are bracing for an 
increase in khat activity.

But members of the Somali immigrant community in Maine say the drug agents 
are wrong. They say chewing khat leaves is a centuries-old practice deeply 
ingrained in a culture that does not tolerate the use of alcohol or 
mind-altering drugs. It's used by students who want to stay awake while 
they study, and old friends who gather to talk. They say it is not 
addictive or associated with criminal behavior.

"You are not going to lose your senses" when chewing khat, said Abdiaziz 
Ali, a Somali immigrant who lives in the Lewiston area. "Nothing will be 
changed, you will not fall down on the street. . . . This is not a drug, it 
is a common vegetable."

Khat is not illegal here, but substances that are sometimes found in it are 
illegal under federal law. There is no Maine law under which someone could 
be prosecuted for khat possession.

And khat itself presents a problem for prosecutors trying to build a case 
against traffickers: The plant's chemical makeup changes radically as it 
ages. When the leaves are fresh, they have been found to contain cathinone, 
but within three days the chemical degrades to cathine, a mild stimulant 
that is almost identical to pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient in many 
over-the-counter cold and diet medications.

Cathine use also is illegal, but carries a much less serious penalty than 
cathinone, said lawyer Sid Moore of Atlanta, Ga. Successful prosecutions in 
khat cases are rare. He has represented 23 defendants, winning 21 
acquittals, with one case still pending. The one case he lost in Ohio has 
been appealed.

Khat leaves take about seven days to reach the United States, and Moore has 
convinced jurors that little cathinone can be found in the khat. "Portland, 
Maine, is a long way from Kenya," he said. "By that time, the cathinone is 
virtually gone."

Moore said judges and juries also are unwilling to convict people for using 
something that is part of their culture, and appears to have such little 
negative consequence.

"It produces a mild euphoria, kind of like what you might experience 
smoking a good cigar," Moore said. "If people could die from ingesting it, 
like cocaine, then I would have no problem banning it. But there's no 
danger here, and that's the problem (with the ban)," he said.

Khat is not illegal in Canada or Great Britain, which was the source of the 
plants in Hussein's packages. It's also legal in East African countries, 
but prohibited in Saudi Arabia and some other Middle East countries.

The leaves come from an evergreen shrub, which grows from 10 to 20 feet 
tall in Africa, in the same regions where coffee is produced. There, by 
some accounts, people first discovered its stimulating effects. Because it 
starts losing potency soon after harvest, its use was limited to the areas 
where it grows naturally until international overnight air freight services 
were introduced.

The U.S. Customs Service has seized khat at ports of entry and at courier 
services like FedEx and United Parcel Service for years, levying the same 
administrative fines issued for illegally importing any plant material. 
According to government sources, more than 57,000 pounds of khat leaves 
were seized in 1998, and more than 24 metric tons of khat were seized in 1999.

In the 1990s, DEA became involved, including cathinone and cathine on the 
list of controlled substances.

On its Web site, the DEA says cultural benefits of khat use are not 
outweighed by its dangers: "The dependence on its use must be seen in the 
same light as those of the other psychomotor stimulants, amphetamine, 
methamphetamine, and cocaine."

Members of the immigrant community disagree.

"It's a custom for old men after lunch who eat it and talk about political 
subjects," said Ali, who compared the effect to highly concentrated 
caffeine. "Somalians are very smart - we are not going to get involved with 
something that will control our lives."

Hussein's attorney, Joseph Groff, a former prosecutor, said comparisons of 
khat to cocaine or heroin are misleading.

DEA Special Agent Paul Wolf said that, despite the benign description of 
the effects of khat, his agency will continue to take the drug seriously.

"My job is to enforce the Controlled Substance Act," he said. "Are you 
asking if I take my job seriously? Yes, I do."
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