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Khat arrests may show culture clash

Three Minneapolis men were in Cass County District Court Monday on charges from Fargo's largest seizure of khat, a leafy plant commonly chewed as a stimulant in East Africa.

Three Minneapolis men were in Cass County District Court Monday on charges from Fargo's largest seizure of khat, a leafy plant commonly chewed as a stimulant in East Africa.

Fargo police officers found 19 pounds of the drug last week in a package that arrived at the Holiday Inn, where an employee reported the suspicious-looking mail. A hotel security officer reported back to police at about 3:30 a.m. Saturday when two men checked in and asked for the shipment, court records say.

After interviewing the men, police arrested Mohamed Dahoir Mohamed, 39; Liban Yussuf Mohamud, 31; and Salah Yusuf, 47. They each were charged with one count of possessing khat and another count of conspiracy to possessing it with intent to deliver, both felonies.

Grown mostly in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, khat is legal in most areas where harvested and in much of Europe, including Great Britain, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Web site.

The men arrested Saturday are from Somalia, where using khat for the mild euphoria it offers is a cultural practice, the DEA said. Mostly a male habit, chewing the bright green leaves and rhubarb-like stalks is often done while socializing. Laborers and farmers sometimes use it to reduce fatigue; drivers and students use it to stay alert.

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"It's like a vegetable," said Abdirizak Adan, a friend of Yusuf's from Somalia who drove from Ohio to attend Monday's court hearing.

In Somalia, about 40 percent of the population says it occasionally or habitually uses the drug, the DEA reported. In early 2002, there were 700 Somalis in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

In many Muslim communities, chewing khat is an acceptable substitute for alcohol, the DEA said, and it is often used to alleviate fatigue and hunger during the holy fast of Ramadan.

The social acceptance back home for many immigrants makes enforcement of local drug laws tricky, said Fargo intelligence officer Dale Stoll.

"If it's an everyday thing, they may not see it as violating the law," he said.

Nonetheless, there have been few signs of the drug in Fargo-Moorhead, Stoll said. The recent seizure is thought to be only the second such find in Fargo.

A smaller amount was found about a year ago through the mail, Stoll said.

Meanwhile, areas with higher concentrations of Somali immigrants, such as Minneapolis, have reported a growing illicit khat industry. U.S. Customs Service seizures rose from 800 kilograms in 1992 to more than 37.2 metric tons in 2001, the DEA said.

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"We don't know what the demand is for khat here," Stoll said.

Under state law, khat is a Schedule Four controlled substance, putting it in the same category as many prescription drugs.

In interviews with police, Yusuf said he drove to Fargo with the two other men to visit their cousin and to pick up a package for a man in Tennessee. Yusuf said he was supposed to take the shipment back to Minneapolis and sell it, court records say.

Liban Mohamud told police he drove his friends to Fargo because they were drinking. He said he had no idea what was to be done with the package. The three men are scheduled to enter pleas to their charges at a preliminary hearing on Oct. 9. Citing their flight risk, bond was set at $25,000 for Mohamed and Mohamud, and at $20,000 for Yusuf.

Determining the street value of khat is difficult, but another friend of Yusuf's who attended Monday's hearing said 19 pounds might fetch a few hundred dollars.

In 1980, the World Health Organization classified khat as a drug that can cause mild to moderate psychic dependence. Users often become more talkative and might become emotionally unstable. Withdrawal symptoms following prolonged use include lethargy, mild depression and nightmares.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Forster at (701) 241-5538

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