Adrian Fenty Fights the Menace of Alert Cabdrivers


The Drug War Chronicle reports that the D.C. Council is considering a proposal by Mayor Adrian Fenty to increase penalties for possession of khat, a stimulant plant popular among District residents from East Africa. Under federal law, fresh khat is treated as a Schedule I drug because it contains cathinone, a stimulant in the same legal category as heroin, LSD, and marijuana. Since the cathinone degrades after harvest, older khat, containing only the milder stimulant cathine, is a Schedule IV drug, in the same category as Valium and Xanax. But under D.C. law khat, fresh or not, is always a Schedule IV drug, a designation that police feel does not treat the plant with sufficient gravity. As one detective puts it, "Why lock them up when you get a slap on the wrist for a Schedule IV that the attorney's office does not want to prosecute?" Fenty's proposal, which the D.C. Council is expected to approve or reject by July 15, would make fresh khat a Schedule I drug under local law, so that possessing it would be a felony.

And what is the nature of the menace that Fenty is fighting? The Washington Times reports that he wants to crack down on khat because "authorities suspect [it] is used by cabdrivers in the city to stay alert and to finance terrorism overseas." As The Drug War Chronicle explains, it's not the cabdrivers who are suspected of financing terrorism; rather, police speculate, without any real evidence, that money from the khat trade might end up in the hands of terrorists. Even if that's true, it's a problem caused by prohibition, which created the black market that may (or may not) benefit terrorists, not with khat itself. So we are left with the fear that cabdrivers use khat to "stay alert"; apparently Fenty prefers his cabdrivers sleepy and distracted.

Khat, which is legal and socially acceptable in countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia, and Yemen, is a glaring example of how readily Americans criminalize other people's drugs. "For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, residents of the Horn of Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula have partaken of khat," The Drug War Chronicle notes. "When the fresh leaves of the plant are chewed, they produce a mild stimulating effect. Friends of the plant liken the high to the buzz achieved from drinking strong coffee; foes, typically in law enforcement, are more apt to liken it to an amphetamine high." This is the basis for the legal crusade against khat: not the drug's actual effects, whether harmful or beneficial, but a tendentious, inflammatory description of another culture's customs. Such is the pattern of drug policy in America, from opium in the 19th century to Salvia divinorum today.

More on khat here.