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Khat drug leads to murder
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Khat grows wild in Somalia and other parts of east Africa. It has reddish stalks like rhubarb, and it contains chemicals that work like an amphetamine. Users chew the leaves and stems like tobacco. (Photo courtesy of DEA)
The Hennepin County Attorney's office has charged five men with second degree murder for the recent homicide of a young Somali woman in Minneapolis. They say the men -- who are all Somalis -- shot the woman over an illegal drug, a mild stimulant called khat. Some Somalis say the chewing of khat leaves is widespread and socially acceptable within their culture. However, law enforcement officials say khat, like other illicit drugs, opens the door for violence and other crime.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Officials in the Hennepin County attorney's office say Yasmin Ali Geele, 32, was selling khat from her south Minneapolis apartment. They say a few weeks ago, three of the five suspects entered her apartment, killed her and took her money and khat plants.

"This is rare that we would see khat involved in a serious crime," says Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar. "In fact it's the first murder we know of that's khat-related."

Klobuchar says the county prosecutes about 30 khat-related cases per year -- almost all for possession. She says the offender usually is ordered to undergo treatment.

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Klobuchar says she understands that people in the Somali community are concerned about khat abuse. But she says from a law enforcement perspective, khat doesn't pose the same threat as other illegal drugs.

"Khat is not the kind of epidemic that you see with cocaine or methamphetamine, or some of these other drugs in Minnesota where you're seeing increase in use," says Klobuchar.

Khat grows wild in Somalia and other parts of east Africa. It has reddish stalks like rhubarb, and it contains chemicals that work like an amphetamine. Users chew the leaves and stems like tobacco.

Like other amphetamines, khat can make a person chatty and more social. Somali activist Omar Jamal says khat is widely used by Somali men and women. And he says there is little, if any, social stigma attached to its use.

However, khat abuse has its costs, he says. Jamal says he's seen chronic khat use lead to the breakup of families.

"There's very serious complaints from the family -- wives and children," says Jamal. "There's some neglect on the family part, because the person who uses it usually doesn't work for his family. Or they use whatever money they had for the family for different purposes -- for the consumption of khat."

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Image Omar Jamal

Nimco Ahmed is a Somali community organizer who works at the Brian Coyle Center in Minneapolis. She says she's never used khat, but says she's grown up seeing others chew khat in social settings. Ahmed says its use is more common back in Somalia than it is here.

That's probably because in Somalia, khat is legal and basically free. In the U.S. khat is illegal, and scarce. Therefore it's expensive. Ahmed says a handful of khat leaves can cost someone $60.

"It's really too expensive. Folks don't have money. If you have a habit or you are really addicted to khat, you might hurt somebody -- or you might even try to rob somebody to get that," says Ahmed.

Violence and illegal drugs often accompany each other, says Minneapolis Police Lt. Rick Thomas. Thomas works in the third precinct, an area where many Somali immigrants live. He says he hasn't found evidence of any organized networks of khat dealers working in his precinct. And Thomas says he's seen very little violence associated with the khat trade. However, he says his officers take the drug seriously.

"Khat is no different than any other illgal drug. With khat you're going to get other types of activity -- criminal activity that goes along with it, just as you do other drugs," says Thomas. "This recent shooting is a prime indication of that happening."

Until the khat-related homicide in Minneapolis, Thomas says the Somali community members he's spoken with haven't been willing to talk much about khat. However, Somali activists say they expect there to be many conversations with the police about khat in the near future.

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