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Feature: DC Moves Toward Stricter Penalties for Khat

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #588)
Consequences of Prohibition
Drug War Issues

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.

khat wrapped in banana leaves and smuggled in suitcase (
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.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Sid Moore (not verified)

The D.C. police did not know cathinone was not banned in the district until last year when it was pointed out to the court during the prosecution of Mr. Warsama. They then switched to prosecuting khat as cathine but found that cathine was also not controlled in the district. It was on the list, but it had not been put there by proper procedure.
According to the commentary on the Convention on Psychotropic Substances no plants should be presumed to be on Schedule I, but only concentrated extracts from plants. Cathinone is on Schedule I internationally but that does not mean khat is controlled. The WHO expert committee on psychotropic substances last reviewed khat in its 2006 meeting and voted not to recommend international controls. Anyone who has looked at this chemical objectively knows it does not belong on Schedule I. This is just a method for deporting Muslims and not an honest effort to control drug trafficking.
The Department of Health and Human Services recently studied eight years of drug related emergency room records and found only one ER visit in the entire country in eight years related to khat, and that was ten years ago. The feds seem to be allowing the Harvey Kushners of the world determine drug policy.

Fri, 06/05/2009 - 5:11am Permalink
Sid Moore (not verified)

In reply to by Sid Moore (not verified)

I neglected to mention that cathine (norpseudoephedrine) is not actually on federal Schedule IV, although DEA repeatedly reprints it on Schedule IV every chance it gets. Cathine was placed on Schedule IV "temporarily" in 1988, to await a study by HHS. But DEA forgot to request the study and it was never done, and the temporary listing of this chemical has long since expired as a matter of law. DC put it on its Schedule IV "automatically" upon the federal listing and then the federal listing expired the DC listing did as well.

Sat, 08/15/2009 - 7:55am Permalink
Cosmic Naturalist (not verified)

The torturers and war criminals in D.C. and Tel Aviv want to continue their fascist assaults on civil liberties and human rights. Why?
They want to turn Planet Earth into a global police state. This attack on "Khat" is the latest phony scam to maintain global slave labor through free prison labor.

Fri, 06/05/2009 - 11:13am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Ohh , My mistake you did say Not an Honest. HAHAH a , well nothing funny here really . Anything that you don`t understand , like , think you know better than . Should be made illegal what better way to truely fund terrorists , make sure you corrupt a few Cops and ruin their lives too . We all see how deep the coruption of Illegal drugs really goes , your not fooling anyone any more you little devil s . Thanks for keeping things interesting . Opps my mistake not interesting So typical that something peoiple have been doing for generations shuold put them in prison for years!

Sat, 06/06/2009 - 7:12am Permalink
concerned american (not verified)

this Knat epipademic sounds highly discusting and im proud they stoped it before it ran amuck on our streets to our children who NOW have to learn the dangers of knat too.To many drugs are being pushed at our children by drug users and dealers they're even in our schools now it's time to start giving the death penlty to these people to show them we MEAN BIUSNESS.this knat sounds like the latest new threat to america! i'm ashamed. BUT IM PROUD that law enforcement got there quickly to save us before our kids found out and its illegal now .thank the holy ghost.

Mon, 06/08/2009 - 2:54pm Permalink
Danny Brewer (not verified)

In reply to by concerned american (not verified)

If you really were a "concerned american" you would have used your real name.Sounds to me like your post is a plant by the opposition because anyone truly concerned about anything wouldn't speak so much out of ignorance.That's what got us in this predicament in the first place.You should do your homework and learn what you wish to speak about and quit wasting everyone's time with a speech straight out of Henry Anslinger's play book.In case you don't know who he is look him up in your local library.He's the clown that had a thing against Mexicans and other minorities so he went on a crusade against marijuana also called cannabis which was also used by people for "thousands" of years with not one reported fatality to it's credit.Learn,experience,and live for a change.Then revisit your comments and be discusted for real.

Tue, 06/09/2009 - 4:47pm Permalink
REAL AMERICAN JOE (not verified)

In reply to by Danny Brewer (not verified)

what gave you the right to attack me! I only speak truth of what 95% of americans hearts,youre just another dope feind.and yes i've heard of Henry Anslinger ,HE'S a great all american american.all this crap they say about him being rasic and stuff is a lie.HE knew the dark dangers of marijuana so he saved AMERICA from that terrorist threat.YOU have no right to call yourself an american at all you punk you just do drugs and you want to do that criminal Khat stuff which is probabally worse than cocaine.stop doing drugs and read a bible and SUPPORT law enforcement.and stop saying how the cops are bad people they protect america from punks like you YOU LOSERS and you should always allow the cops to search you cause if your innocent you have nothing to hide.and I always tell the cops the truth. like yesterday i caught these two teenagers SMOKING cigarettes out by the kmart and you could tell they were underage! i quickly took a picture of them smoking and called 911 to report the crime and waited for the police showed them the kids accourse being lieing crimial children who are punks they denied it and i showed the nice officers the picture and told them i would be happy to be a witness in court becouse we dont need juviniles running amuck on the streets doing illegal things it's wrong .i hate drug users they ruin this world i love how we have this drug war to fight it off and i have to say it.WE ARE WINNING THE WAR ON DRUGS concerding all the druggies in prison and not out raping kids or women,for gods sake just drink a beer for enjoyment only if your old enough though

Tue, 06/09/2009 - 10:08pm Permalink

The 'laws' against Khat are just another manifestation of criminal mercantilism for protecting markets in tobacco, coffee-caffeine etc.

The DC government just loves to show they are dopes with no regard to civil liberties beyond say sex and abortion.

Tue, 06/09/2009 - 12:49pm Permalink

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