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Unique drug case goes to court in Northern Virginia

In an unusual case concerning felony drug charges playing out in an Alexandria, Virginia, courtroom, prosecutors will need to prove that a drug contains a banned substance, something defense lawyers said could be hard to do.

The government has put 13 natives of Yemen or Somalia on trial, charging each with smuggling khat. While not a highly recognizable drug in the United States, it is illegal here. However, it is both legal and common in the defendants' native lands.

Prosecutors claim that the group smuggled khat worth millions of dollars into the U.S. over a six-year period. Lawyers for some of the defendants have said the government chose to prosecute their clients out of fear they are selling the drug to finance terrorist operations, but the government has turned up no evidence of that. Most of the defendants are U.S. citizens. It's important that U.S. citizens don't let the government capitalize on people's fears of terrorist attacks to pursue charges against people.

Khat is a leaf known to give a user who chews it a mild high. It contains cathinone and cathine, which the U.S. government has labeled controlled substances. Under federal law, cathinone possession, in particular, is treated as a serious offense.

Cathinone is reputed to break down quickly after khat has been harvested, and prosecutors have said the alleged drug ring made sure to import the khat as quickly as possible. In the U.S., appellate courts have ruled that importing khat does not violate law unless it has at least one controlled substance in it.

One of the defendant's lawyers said that prosecutors must prove the cathinone was present instead of using cathinone and khat interchangeably. That could be a high burden of proof for prosecutors, and the defendants should realize that.

This case is similar to a 2006 case in which the Justice Department tried 44 defendants of an alleged khat ring. Prosecutors called that case "Operation Somalia Express" and got convictions of just more than half of the defendants. Of those convicted, most received jail sentences of just a few months.

In the current case, two people believed to be the ringleaders of the operation already have pleaded guilty. They received prison sentences that will last less than three years.

Source: Associated Press, "13 defendants in khat smuggling case go to trial, allegedly imported $5M worth of the drug," April 17, 2012

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