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DEA Declares War on Over-the-counter Products - Man Sentenced To 51 Months In Jail

An Article By Terence T. Gorski
GORSKI-CENAPS Web Publications
Published On: July 23, 2001          Updated On: April 13, 2002
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

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DEA Declares War on Over-the-counter Products
Man Sentenced To 51 Months In Jail

On July 22, 2001 the St. Petersburg Times reported that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has expanded the war on drugs to over-the-counter products.  A man was sentenced to 51 months in prison for agreeing to sell a legal product, Mini Thins, which contain ephedra, to an undercover DEA agent.  This story shows how harsh drug laws can be used to discriminate against small business owners and immigrants.

It's time to end the Drug War Policy and replace it with a Public Health Addiction Policy that uses the combined efforts of law enforcement and treatment to help addicts, their families, and their communities.  The War On Drugs is giving the DEA almost unlimited power to harass and is eroding the constitutional rights of all citizens.  We should all be concerned.  

Terence T. Gorski
July 23, 2001


Right now, you or I could walk into any Wal-Mart and buy diet aids and 
energy boosters containing a substance called ephedrine.

Yet, when a Jordanian-born store owner named Ahmad Ghenemat helped a customer buy an over-the-counter product made with ephedrine, here's what happened -- Ghenemat got nearly five years in prison and faces deportation from the United States for 20 more.

The "customer" was an undercover agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. And the reasons he approached Ghenemat raise questions about this country's war on drugs and its treatment of non-citizens.

Until their paths crossed, Ghenemat had a clean record, not even a traffic ticket. In 1991, he moved from Jordan to California, where he married a U.S. woman with a baby. To support them, Ghenemat worked two jobs. He paid taxes, became a legal permanent resident and saved and borrowed enough to open his own minimart. By October 1996, he was in the process of buying a second store.

But the long hours had hurt his marriage. Ghenemat and his wife split up, and she took most of their assets. He wondered where he would get money for the big deposit needed to change the electric bill at the new store into his name.

That's when a man walked in, pointed to a bottle of "Mini Thins" and asked if it would be possible to get some more. Ghenemat said he would check with his wholesaler.

Made by an Indianapolis company, Mini Thins is ostensibly a cold medicine but is often called "trucker's speed" because long-distance truckers use it to stay alert. It contains ephedra, or ma huang, a substance derived from an Asiatic shrub that acts as a stimulant on the central nervous system. Ephedra is found in many other over-the-counter products including diet aids like Metabolife.

In the mid-90s, Mini Thins were especially popular with "meth cooks," who extracted the ephedra for use in the manufacture of illegal methamphetamines. Known as "speed" or "crank," methamphetamines cause increased activity, decreased appetite and a sense of well-being. Once the "rush" wears off, there is a high state of agitation that sometimes leads to violent behavior.

Ghenemat, a Muslim, has never used or condoned illicit drugs, according to Patricia Bellamy, his fiance. When people tried to swap marijuana for alcohol in his stores, he refused, she says.

Several days after his first visit, the same customer returned and asked if Ghenemat had been able to get more Mini Thins. No, he apologized. Worried about his electric deposit, though, he arranged this time to get six cases of Mini Thins, each with 144 bottles, in return for what he assumed would be a commission from the wholesaler.

At the customer's request, he, Ghenemat and the wholesaler met in a parking lot across from one of Ghenemat's stores. Ghenemat never had his hands on either the Mini Thins or any money. Nonetheless, he was charged with a federal felony: possession of pseudoephedrine knowing and having reasonable cause to believe that it would be used to manufacture methamphetamine.

Insisting he was innocent, Ghenemat went to trial. Among the evidence were tapes on which the DEA agent talked about making "meth." That proved Ghenemat knew the Mini Thins were being purchased for illegal reasons, prosecutors said.

A jury convicted Ghenemat and a judge sentenced him to 51 months, which he is serving at a federal prison in Arizona. When he finishes his term, he faces additional punishment under the 1996 Immigration Reform Act, which requires that any non-citizen convicted of an aggravated felony be deported for 20 years.

But that's not the end of the story. About the same time -- unbeknownst to Ghenemat and his lawyers -- the DEA and local police were conducting a "sting" of convenience stores in Phoenix, Ariz., that purportedly were selling large quantities of Mini Thins to meth cooks.

Like Ghenemat, most of the store owners arrested were Arab-Americans. Unlike him, they got a lucky break.

In the Arizona cases, the owners had been charged under a state, not federal law. A sharp defense lawyer found another Arizona law that barred prosecution of anyone "who sells any non-narcotic substance that under (federal law) may be sold over the counter without a prescription." Charges against the store owners were dropped.

While interviewing a detective, defense lawyers made another startling discovery. With DEA approval, the detective had sent a letter to Wal-Mart and other big retailers informing them that products with ephedrine were being used to make methamphetamines. The letter asked for the retailers' cooperation in restricting sales.

However, no such letter went to the owners of the small mom-and-pop stores.

"If you're Wal-Mart, you get a year to educate your employees and reconfigure your cash register to halt bulks sales," a story in the Phoenix New Times said. "If you're E-Z Stop, you get solicited by undercover narcs."

Under the Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996 -- which did not take effect until after Ghenemat's arrest -- retailers are now restricted in the amount of ephedrine-containing products they can sell to a single customer.

However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate ephedrine when sold as a dietary supplement, despite evidence it has sickened or killed more than 800 people even when used for its stated purposes. The makers of Mini Thins and other products continue to legally produce them.

The DEA and other government agencies "go after the little guys because if they go after the big guys, the big guys will hire big law firms and they won't get anywhere with it," says Eleanor Miller, a lawyer who represented some of the Arizona store owners. "So they target the little guys who will roll over."

It's hard to say whether Ghenemat, 33, suspected that someone wanting 864 bottles of Mini Thins had an illicit purpose in mind. But there is no evidence he ever sold Mini Thins to any real-life methamphetamine makers. Remember, too, that Mini Thins are a legal product and that Ghenemat was a hard-working, tax-paying individual who never had any problems with the law until an agent of the U.S. government walked into his store

Makes you wonder, doesn't it?

Pubdate: Sun, 22 Jul 2001
Source: St. Petersburg Times (FL)
Copyright: 2001 St. Petersburg Times
Author: Susan Taylor Martin

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