Legal drug from Africa confounds police

.ST. PAUL (AP) – A St. Paul couple wants law enforcement officials to return their dried khat leaves now that drug charges against them have been dropped.

Naser and Shukria Ali faced charges in Washington County for possessing graba – dried khat leaves that many East Africans use as a stimulant. But the charges were dropped last month after it was determined the couple hadn’t broken any state laws.

“It’s worth half a million dollars,” Shukria Ali said. “It’s not fair.”

Confusion over the case stems from differing state and federal statutes and enforcement attitudes, as well as from how difficult it is to quickly identify different forms of khat.

Khat in Minnesota “is so new, we don’t know where this is landing,” Washington County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Pat Olson said.

In May, investigators connected Naser Ali, 27, and Shukria Ali, 25, to a 1,000-pound stash of graba in a self-storage unit in Woodbury. At the time, law enforcement officials said it was one of the largest catches of its kind in Minnesota. Investigators also seized more than $10,000 in cash from the couple, as well as a laptop and sport utility vehicle.

The Alis say they spent almost two months in jail before posting bail at a cost of $10,000.

Prosecutors dropped the charges Sept. 10 and said they were dropping the case because the couple hadn’t broken any state law. Their khat was legal.

The reason for the confusion seems to lie in the changing chemical properties of khat (pronounced “cot”), an African shrub.

When they’re fresh, khat leaves contain cathinone, a chemical that produces euphoria when chewed. Cathinone is illegal under Minnesota and federal law.

But within 48 hours of harvest, the leaves’ chemical composition tends to break down to the point where they contain a much milder chemical called cathine. That’s what’s usually found in graba, the dried khat leaves, which users often steep in tea to get their high.

Cathine is illegal under federal law, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, but not under Minnesota law. Possessing the graba the Alis had “is not technically a crime under state law,” Washington County Attorney Doug Johnson said.

In Naser Ali’s case in Hennepin County, his lawyer, Jeff Degree, said he’ll dispute test results that found cathinone in the 127 pounds of khat connected to Ali. The khat was in dried graba form – which usually contains cathine.

“The lab didn’t do the test properly,” Degree said. “I don’t know how they can find something that shouldn’t be there.”

An official from the Hennepin County attorney’s office did not return phone calls requesting comment.