- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2008

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.”

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