22 April 2009

Khat Crime

In East Africa, Khat, a leafy plant native to East Africa and the Arabian Pennisula, is widely chewed by adults and like chewing tobacco, is addictive.

Because it is rarely used outside of immigrant communities and those communities try to stay out of trouble, it is a relative newcomer to the U.S. drug scene. But, it turns out that Khat contains sustances that are Schedule I controlled substance punishable by stiff federal drug laws, even if you didn't know that khat contained chemicals that are controlled substances in the United States.

The confusion isn't simply a matter of unfamiliarity with the law. The substance that is controlled by U.S. law is only present in Khat when it is very fresh.

khat can contain two active ingredients: cathinone, a Schedule I substance that is illegal at all times, and cathine, a Schedule IV drug that may be illegal if not imported with the proper authorizations. Lynch further testified that cathinone is present in khat for forty-eight hours after harvesting, at which point the chemical weakens and eventually dissipates entirely.

Lynch also stated that this process can be delayed if the khat is kept cold and moist by wrapping it in banana leaves or Saran Wrap, freezing it, or sprinkling it with water.

Lynch explained that traffickers usually import khat into the United States from Africa and the Middle East through shipment points in London, Luxembourg, and Amsterdam, as those cities have direct flights into the United States and the “idea is to get it here as quickly as possible.” Specifically, most khat enters the country through JFK and Newark International Airports. Once there, it is either sold in the surrounding region or shipped to other parts of the country, such as “Ohio, in Cleveland and Cincinnati . . . often, Minneapolis, Minnesota.” Delivery to such cities usually involves the use of large rental trucks or vans because they are cost-effective, minimize outside scrutiny, and can be used to pick up shipments directly at the airport.

Lynch testified that the cost of a kilogram of khat ranged from $300 to $400, and the price for a “bundle” of khat ranged from $28 to $50. In August 2005, a bundle of khat sold in New York would have cost approximately $35, while a similar bundle sold in the Minnesota area would have cost five to ten dollars more due to transportation and labor costs. Lynch also testified that because of the rate at which cathinone dissipates once khat leaves have been harvested, possession of one kilogram of khat, which would yield approximately nine bundles, was consistent only with distribution, not personal use.

The defendant's claim of ignorance of law and facts was also weakened by the fact that he had previously been prosecuted and convicted of the offense before the acts in question in the cases cited above, and was using a criminal modus operandi consistent with rapid transport of the substance to preserve its potency as a drug.

Khat is notable, however, for being a drug which is legal on a widespread basis were it is principally used, yet illegal in many circumstances in the U.S. The values gap on the harmfulness of the drug makes a drug war campaign focused on this drug a potentially important tool by which an ill intentioned prosecutor could target Middle Eastern and East African populations such as the Ethiopian community.

The Schedule I offense carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison (more, if aggravating circumstances are present). The Schedule IV offense carries of sentence of up to 3 years in prison. Actual sentences depend upon the U.S. Sentencing Guidelins and judicial discretion. The dollar amounts at stake in this deal, however, suggests that it was a small time transaction in scale -- with an economic value comparable to that of a midsdemeanor theft.

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