Somali immigrants are on trial on charges that they conspired to smuggle khat from Africa to Minnesota
But while prosecutors portrayed them as drug dealers, their lawyers disputed government claims that khat contains enough of an outlawed substance known as cathonine to be considered part of the drug trafficking trade.
Both sides agreed cathonine all but disappears from khat within days after it is picked from fields in Kenya and Ethiopia.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Seetha Ramachandran said the defendants used a fleet of human couriers and overnight shipping arrangements to race khat to America and through New York for distribution in Minneapolis and Portland, Maine.
She said the defendants made hundreds of thousands of dollars bringing massive amounts of khat into the United States.
"These defendants knew full well that what they were doing was illegal and that they were importing and selling an illegal drug," Ramachandran said, adding that the defendants admitted as much in taped conversations resulting from an 18-month investigation.
Khat is favored by immigrants from Somalia, lawyers in the case said. Minnesota has about 30,000 Somali refugees, most in the Twin Cities. It is believed to be the largest such concentration in the United States.
In Yemen, Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia, khat is socially accepted. It is chewed like loose tobacco, resulting in a mild buzz that lasts from 90 minutes to a few hours. It can cause an elevated heart rate and blood pressure and create a feeling of euphoria.
Some medical studies have linked it to depression, hyperactivity or hallucinations among longtime users. Overseas, khat is seen as a social ill but an acceptable one, like alcohol.
Lawyer Neil Checkman, arguing for defendant Abdulahi Hussein, urged jurors to look past "mountains and mountains of evidence of khat dealing" to learn why the defendants operated where they could be seen. When introduced to the jury, Hussein stood and waved cheerfully.
"This case really is about an evaporating theory," lawyer Michael Hueston said on behalf of his client, Ali Awad.
He said the outlawed substance in khat disappeared so quickly that there was at most a total of 3 ounces of cathonine in all the khat imported by the ragtag group.
Sidney Moore Jr., a lawyer for defendant Abdi Emil Moge, said it would be impossible to get khat to the United States in the two days before cathonine disappeared.
"Common sense will dictate the whole theory of this case is not credible," he said.
Lawyer Steven G. Brill said defendant Abdinar Ahmed Dahir lives in Minneapolis with his wife and five children after fleeing war-torn Somalia in 1993. He said jurors will see on taped conversations that the defendants don't mask khat by calling it "jewels or candy."
"The evidence is out in the open," he said. "None of the defendants have anything to hide."
Moge and Awad, detained without bail, could face minimum mandatory sentences of 20 years in prison if they are convicted of conspiracy and engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise.
If convicted of conspiracy to distribute drugs, Dahir and Hussein, who are free on bail during the trial, could face 20 years in prison.
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