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January khat bust called 'huge'

A drug bust earlier this year in which Fargo police seized 600 pounds of khat destined for Minneapolis is believed to be the largest seizure of the cocaine-like narcotic in Cass County and possibly the state, Sgt. Jeff Skuza said.

"This is huge," he said.

The Jan. 31 bust wasn't announced until Wednesday because Hennepin County, Minn., authorities were still investigating the case, Skuza said.

Acting on a tip, Fargo police seized the drugs at Hector International Airport. They also detained a suspect, Jeffrey Lewis Lerner, 61, of Minnetonka, Minn., who arrived in a truck to haul the shipment away, Skuza said.

The case was turned over to the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, which arrested Lerner and another suspect, Ricky Lee Bartel, 53, of Brooklyn Center, Minn., on suspicion of possession with intent to distribute.

The seized drugs had an estimated street value of $112,000, Skuza said.

Khat is a flowering shrub native to northeast Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

In the United States, khat use is most prevalent among immigrants from Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen.

Chewing fresh khat leaves produces a stimulant effect similar to but less intense than those caused by cocaine or methamphetamine.

The active ingredient in fresh khat leaves is cathinone, a Schedule I drug under federal law.

The chemical composition of the leaves typically breaks down about 48 hours after harvest, at which point they contain a milder chemical, cathine, which also is illegal under federal law.

The short breakdown period is why the plant is often shipped to the United States in large amounts on overnight flights, Skuza said.

In September 2003, area agents seized 275 pounds of khat over two weeks. In May 2006, Fargo police arrested two local men and a third from Phoenix after they picked up about 40 pounds of khat from a delivery service, according to Forum archives.