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Utah police seize 400 lbs. of exotic drug "khat"

By Ben Winslow and Pat Reavy
Deseret Morning News

SOUTH SALT LAKE, Utah — The dozens of bags of dried green and tan leaves filled the evidence room at the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office, giving off a foul odor.

Police seized more than 400 pounds of an exotic, African-based drug called "khat," which has been sweeping across the United States and is now in Utah.

"This is not something we see very often," Salt Lake County Sheriff's Lt. Paul Jaroscak said Thursday. "It's the first time I've ever seen it."

Khat (pronounced "cot") is typically chewed, with the fresh leaves retained in the cheek to release the stimulant. The National Drug Intelligence Center says the drug increases energy, with effects similar -- but not nearly as intense as -- meth or cocaine.

The Drug Enforcement Administration says the drug has been known to induce psychosis, hyperactivity, hallucinations, violence, suicidal depression and physical exhaustion. Frequent use can reduce motivation.

It is used widely in areas of eastern Africa and parts of the Middle East. A study published last week by the Public Library of Science documented widespread abuse of khat, particularly among militia and other Somali combatants. The study suggested that disarmament in the violence-ravaged region is necessary to deal with "significant drug-related problems in Somalia."

Among eastern Africans, khat is not seen as a drug. It is a legal substance and tied to their culture.

"It's mostly chewed by men. They usually chew for socialization," said a local Somali woman, who asked the Deseret Morning News not to use her name. "The only side effect I know is they lose a lot of their teeth."

It is also fairly expensive, which leads local drug agents to doubt it will become a street phenomenon.

"I don't see kids in high school chewing khat," said Michael Root, supervisory special agent for the Salt Lake City office of the DEA.

But at least one undercover drug agent said some are predicting khat is going to become a bigger problem in the Salt Lake Valley in 2008 once young adults catch on -- mostly because it's a drug that is chewed, rather than smoked or injected.

The potency of khat quickly deteriorates after it is cut. Because of that, a distribution network has to be set up immediately.

Salt Lake City police say it is becoming an increasing problem.

"It's definitely here," said detective Jeff Bedard.

In the eastern United States, police are seeing an increase in drug abusers addicted to khat. In 2006, drug agents in New York busted 44 people accused of smuggling in more than 25 tons of khat. Some of that drug was bound for Utah, the DEA said.

The Salt Lake City area has a large African refugee population, but groups that help them relocate have not noticed any widespread use of khat.

"In our refugee population, we just don't see it," said Suzanne DeVoe of Catholic Community Services.

Within the past year, federal drug agents here have begun seeing more shipments.

"Whether it's legal in people's home countries or not, it's against the law in the U.S.," said Root. "It's a highly addictive stimulant."

Copyright 2007 Deseret Morning News

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