WAR ON DRUGS TAKES ODD TURN OVER THE COUNTER
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
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
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
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,
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
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