Khat an illegal substance, Appeals Court reaffirms

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 23, 2010 - 9:43 PM

Two men argued that their convictions for possession of the euphoria-producing plant violated religious freedom rights.

Possessing the plant khat is illegal under Minnesota law, and prosecuting violators does not infringe on their religious freedom, the state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

The euphoria-producing plant is popular in East African nations and among that region's immigrants in the Twin Cities. Some of their advocates say prosecuting them for possessing it unfairly brands them as criminals and makes them more susceptible to recruitment by terrorists.

The ruling marks the third time that Minnesota's appellate courts have found khat (pronounced "cot") to be illegal, although it is unlikely to be the last word. The latest case started in February 2009, when police with a warrant searched the home of Yusof Mohamed Adam and Ahmed Ali Ahmed and, according to court records, found the pair at a table packaging what proved to be 3.5 pounds of khat.

Police also saw that the men appeared to have a leafy substance in their mouths, and their tongues were green. Adam had $1,730 in cash in his pocket and a package of khat. Officers found $2,560 in Ahmed's pocket.

Appearing before Hennepin County Districtt Judge Peter Cahill, the men were convicted of fifth-degree possession.

The two appealed their convictions. They argued that state drug laws prohibit possession of "mixtures containing a controlled substance." They said khat is a plant native to East Africa, not a mixture. They also argued that prosecution of khat possession violates religious freedom.

The court said the legal definition of "mixture" is defined as "anything that has mass and occupies space." The opinion from a three-judge panel said, "Obviously, the khat plants have mass and occupy space; they are a substance and thus a mixture within the meaning" of state law.

The eight-page decision, written by retired Judge James Harten and signed by judges Terri Stoneburner and Louise Dovre Bjorkman, said the law bans any mixture "having a stimulant effect on the central nervous system" and specifically cites cathinone and methcathinone, which can be present in khat.

The Court of Appeals also said the U.S. Supreme Court has never determined that religious beliefs free anyone from compliance with laws prohibiting regulated conduct.

The Khat Research Program at the University of Minnesota Duluth is studying khat's impact on the brain and public health.

Dr. Mustafa al'Absi, a professor of medicine at UMD, is leading the study project, funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Asked if khat should be legal, al'Absi laughed. "We hope to one day have enough information to inform policymakers," he said.

Abdi Bihi, a Somali activist in the Twin Cities, says khat should be legal. He said the East African community is being persecuted over khat, resulting in drug convictions and job losses and ultimately leading to more successful recruiting efforts by terrorist groups.

"I'm not advocating for khat; I'm advocating against useless consequences," Bihi said.

In 2000, assistant Hennepin County Attorney Mike Richardson noted in petitions to the court that khat has been regulated for decades in Somalia and many other African countries. He said the United Nations also has encouraged prohibitions on khat use. The 2000 ruling marked the first time that state courts specifically ruled on khat.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

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