Federal agents say they have broken up a smuggling ring responsible for most U.S. distribution of a leafy stimulant called khat, which is illegal here, but commonly used in East Africa and parts of the Arabian Peninsula.
Prosecutors announced the indictment of 44 people Wednesday on charges that they helped bring 25 tons of the plant into the US in recent years.
All but 14 of the suspects were under arrest after a series of sweeps in several states. Some five tons of the drug, worth $2 million, have been seized by agents during the 18-month investigation, authorities said.
U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia said the case signals that law enforcement agents take khat smuggling seriously. John Gilbride, the special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's New York office, called it "highly addictive and devastating" to the people who use it.
Largely unknown to Americans, khat is a common and socially accepted drug in Yemen, Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia.
Users chew it, like loose tobacco, and generally experience a mild buzz that lasts for about 90 minutes and can cause an elevated heart rate and blood pressure. It can also create a feeling of euphoria.
Overseas, it is seen as a social ill, but an acceptable one, like alcohol. England considered a ban on khat this year, but decided against it.
Contains controlled substances
It is illegal in the U.S. because it can contain two controlled substances: cathonine, which is found in very fresh khat leaves, or cathine, a less potent chemical that turns up once the plant dries.
Investigators said the defendants arrested Wednesday mailed khat to the United States in packages or sent it with couriers aboard commercial airlines. From New York, it made its way to Ohio, Minnesota, Maine, Massachusetts, Utah, Washington, Illinois and Washington D.C.
Some amounts of the drug were also smuggled into the U.S. inside United Nations diplomatic pouches, which are not subject to inspection by customs agents.
One of the suspects under arrest worked in a mailroom at the UN, officials said.
Several of the defendants also face charges that they laundered money from the operation by passing it back to Africa and the Middle East through a series of banks and informal currency transmitting networks.
FBI agent Mark Mershon, the assistant director in charge of the bureau's New York office, said the next phase of the investigation will be to "follow the money" back to the East African nations where the drug originated.
Mershon said some of the areas involved have attracted attention as "a hotbed for Sunni extremism," and there have been some reports that terror groups and regional warlords have financed their campaigns through khat sales.
No connections to terrorism
Authorities added, though, that none of the 44 charged Wednesday had any known link to terrorism.
People have been getting arrested for khat possession in the US for years, but the busts have increased in frequency as the Arab and East African immigrant communities have grown.
In recent months, police have made arrests from Wichita, Kan., to Sioux Falls, S.D., to Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
In a related case, a federal grand jury in Seattle indicted 18 people on khat importing charges. The six-month investigation led to the seizure of 1,000 pounds of the drug.
Gilbride said the drug is still seldom distributed outside those communities, but is no less of a public health risk.
Medical studies have yet to conclude how bad khat can be to someone's health, but some research has linked it to depression, hyperactivity or hallucinations among longtime users.