Some two decades ago Minnesota’s Hennepin County attorney, now-Sen. Amy Klobuchar, prosecuted the possession of khat, an herbal stimulant grown in Northeast Africa and the Arabian peninsula. It is used widely in social gatherings as an equivalent to drinking coffee or tea, and has also been used as an Indigenous tribal medicine.
Though khat is an illegal narcotic in the U.S., with its most active chemical prohibited by the Drug Enforcement Administration alongside heroin and LSD, there’s a widespread understanding among communities using khat socially, criminal justice reform advocates, and scholars that its potential harms are similar to those of chewing tobacco.
At a time when khat-related prosecutions were rare, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported in 1999 that as county prosecutor, Klobuchar defended charging people for using it “despite the cultural usage of khat and its legal status in the offenders’ native country.” An attorney for six Somali defendants she prosecuted said it made little sense for law enforcement to expend resources on a drug that has effects similar to that of “a Scandinavian cup of coffee.”
“The county has spent so much time, money and effort on what is a social gathering in the Somali community, like meeting for a cup of coffee,” attorney Rene Clemenson told the Associated Press at the time. “It’s sad because it has seriously affected the Somali community, which in my experience is industrious and hardworking.”
Klobuchar, who is now running for president, was Hennepin County’s top prosecutor from 1999 to 2006, the year she was elected to the U.S. Senate. She has faced criticisms on the campaign trail for aggressively pursuing drug prosecutions that disproportionately impact black and brown communities, and for declining to prosecute a number of controversial police shootings. In 2002, for example, Klobuchar declined to prosecute six police officers who shot a mentally ill Somali man who was walking down the street, wielding a machete and a crowbar. More recently, the senator has been accused by former staffers of physical and emotional abuse.
Her record came under particular scrutiny last week, as the Associated Press published a yearlong investigation suggesting that in prosecuting a case of a little girl who was shot and killed by a stray bullet, Klobuchar sent an innocent 16-year-old to prison for life. Klobuchar boasted about Myon Burrell’s conviction in an ad for her 2006 Senate campaign. In response to AP’s reporting, the Klobuchar campaign said that Burrell was tried and convicted twice for the murder, and that his second trial took place after Klobuchar left the office for the Senate. “If there was new evidence, she said, it should be immediately reviewed by the court,” AP reported. Following AP’s investigation, the foreman of the jury on the case said he regrets his vote to convict.
The AP report led to prominent Minnesota activists, including the Twin Cities Black Lives Matter chapter, the Minneapolis NAACP, and Communities United Against Police Brutality, calling on the senator to drop out of the presidential race. Klobuchar enters Monday’s Iowa caucus with single-digit polling. She had 8 percent support in the latest Siena/New York Times survey of likely Iowa caucus-goers, compared to 4 percent in October. She also more than doubled her support since December in the latest WBUR poll of likely New Hampshire caucus-goers. (A candidate must receive support from 15 percent of caucus attendees to be viable.)
Klobuchar is polling at less than one percent among black voters nationally. On the campaign trail, she has touted her support from Minnesota’s Somali community, the largest community of Somalis in the country. At Iowa’s Black and Brown forum with Democratic presidential candidates on January 20, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Klobuchar responded to a question about immigration policy by stating that she was the only candidate “running in the Midwest, in a state that didn’t have as big of a Hispanic population but does have the biggest Somali population, which I have a lot of support, because I’ve worked for them for so long.”
On the question of prosecuting khat cases, Klobuchar’s campaign provided The Intercept with news reports from the time that emphasize that khat was not a top concern for the prosecutor’s office, and that her office prosecuted relatively few such cases. The campaign also touted the senator’s work with the Somali community, citing her work to extend Temporary Protective Status and reduce visa delays for Somali citizens and undo a rule prohibiting remittances to Somalia.
The senator does have the support of members of Minnesota’s Somali community, said Abdi Barkat, an organizer and program manager at Ka Joog, a nonprofit serving Somali American youth in Minnesota. “We are supporting her,” Barkat said, noting that Klobuchar stood up for the community on issues of immigration and housing. “That’s why they are caucusing in Minnesota.” Barkat said he couldn’t speak to her record as a prosecutor, but he’d known her over the past 10 years. “I do not know what was before that,” he said.
Federal officials have ramped up prosecution of what they describe as khat smuggling rings over the past two decades. But at the time Klobuchar prosecuted the 1999 case, there had been little police activity around the substance.
As county prosecutor, Klobuchar was a staunch defender of prosecuting khat in a case involving six Somali residents in Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis and its western and southern suburbs. “This is an illegal drug in our country. It is our job to prosecute the cases,” Klobuchar said at the time, noting that khat’s use is not limited to use in the Somali community. The Tribune reported that authorities in the surrounding St. Paul, Anoka, and Dakota counties said “they have seen little or no khat use.” Klobuchar told the Associated Press in 1999 that few khat cases were being prosecuted.
While Klobuchar has said that khat wasn’t her office’s focus, she still prosecuted around a dozen cases a year, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported in 1999. Those were typically fifth-degree possession charges, which don’t get prison time, but are still felonies. Klobuchar’s khat cases largely resulted in probation or diversion and drug treatment programs that can help reduce sentencing. “These are user cases where treatment or probation is usual,” Klobuchar told the AP in 1999.
In 2000, the Minnesota Court of Appeals made it easier to prosecute khat possession, ruling that prosecutors could move forward with charges without proving the amount of the active ingredient cathinone present in the khat in question. In 2002, a spokesperson for Klobuchar’s office told AP khat-related charges were filed against “10 to 20 people in the past year.”
Such prosecutions have continued in Minnesota and elsewhere in recent years. New York state sent the first men in state history to prison for khat in 2015. Officials in the U.S. have recently brought charges against khat smuggling and use in New York, Virginia, Texas, and other states. In 2016, two Somali men were convicted in McLean County, Illinois, in connection with trafficking 150 pounds of khat.
The consensus among criminal justice scholars and advocates is that khat is a substance not worth prosecuting. Eric Sterling, who leads the nonprofit Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, told NBC in 2007 that his “understanding of the use of khat is that it should be a very low priority for federal law enforcement,” saying he thought such “cases are largely a waste of very precious federal criminal justice resources.”