Bangladeshi police display confiscated narcotics in Dhaka. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP/Mehedi Hasan
Bangladeshi police display confiscated narcotics in Dhaka. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP/Mehedi Hasan

Giving a new dimension to drug trafficking in Bangladesh, law enforcers in its capital, Dhaka, recently seized quite a large amount of khat leaves, a narcotic substance originating from the African continent.

This comes at a time when the country is abuzz with anti-narcotic drives in which hundreds of alleged drug dealers and peddlers have been killed by law enforcers.

In the last two weeks, customs officials and police have seized three separate consignments of new “legal high” drugs, officially known as new psychotropic substances and locally called khat.

On Wednesday, officials from the Department of Narcotics Control seized a parcel containing 232 kilograms of khat from the headquarters of the General Post Office in Dhaka.

On August 31, the same department and Dhaka Customs first confiscated 468 kilograms of contraband, worth around 7 million taka (US$83,600), from Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport. This was followed by seizures of a far bigger consignment of 1,600 kilograms by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) last Sunday.

Both shipments had arrived at the airport’s cargo village from the African country of Ethiopia.

Khurshid Alam, assistant director of the Department of Narcotics Control, told Asia Times that the agency had first learned about khat from the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

“We had gotten information from the [DEA] that a consignment of khat would come to Bangladesh on August 27. It didn’t come on that date but we kept our eyes open, and four days later we seized the consignment on August 31 from the airport.”

Alam said it looked like green tea and was labeled the same. “If we didn’t get the intel information from the [DEA], we wouldn’t have understood what it really was. We would have thought it was green tea,” he said.

“We don’t know yet but we are suspecting that these drugs have already entered into the country’s drug scene,” he further admitted.

What is khat?

Khat, also spelled qat, is a flowering evergreen shrub native to East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The plant (Catha edulis) contains two alkaloids – cathinone and cathine – that act as stimulants.

Users simply chew the green khat leaves, keeping a ball of partially chewed leaves against the inside of their cheek. The dried leaves can also be used the same way, though they have less potency. Some khat users smoke the drug, make it into tea or sprinkle it on food.

Use of khat has been a tradition for centuries throughout Somalia, Yemen and Ethiopia, where khat cafes (“mafrishes”) can often be found.

The effects of khat are similar to those of other amphetamines, according to articles found in different medical journals. Khat users report feelings of well-being, mental alertness, excitement and euphoria.

Though it is generally described as a mild stimulant, there is evidence of overuse and addiction. Long-term use or abuse has been linked to “insomnia, anorexia, gastric disorders, depression, liver damage” and heart attacks, according to a 2009 study.

“Manic and delusional behavior, violence, suicidal depression, hallucinations, paranoia and khat-induced psychosis have also been reported,” the study stated.

Alam said khat had the same effect as yaba, the most ubiquitous methamphetamine pill in Bangladesh. “This keeps people awake for a longer period and the withdrawal of it also has the same impact of making people dull and worrisome,” he said.

Just as law enforcers in the country have become vigilant and extra cautious about yaba and its trade, this new drug finds its way into the country, Alam observed. He said Bangladesh might also be used as a middle route between Africa and the Far East for khat trade. “We have also received intel information that khat demands have soared in Thailand, especially among tourists.

“Besides, khat is not a listed drug in Dhaka and our law enforcers and the border guards are still not familiar with this drug,” he said, adding that the generic substances of khat –  cathinone and cathine – were illegal under the Bangladesh Narcotics Control Act of 1990.

Link with rising African community?

Shah Alam, additional deputy inspector general of the police force’s CID, said that with increasing numbers of Africans in parts of the capital, this new drug possibly has found its demand group in Dhaka.

“We [haven’t found] any concrete connection yet but we believe some of the African nationals in Dhaka are responsible for familiarizing this new drug to Dhaka’s local drug addicts who used to take yaba,” he said.

He noted that law enforcers had taken a strong stance against yaba, so drug dealers as well as users were looking for alternatives.

“We are suspecting that some drug dealers have taken this chance. As khat was not known here and it was not listed in our list of banned drugs, the importers tried to bring it in the country in the name of green tea, which looks pretty similar to khat.”

He further added that a special CID team was working to identify the masterminds behind the khat trade in the country.

“We have prepared a list of 20 people and organizations. We have already conducted a drive and captured a small cartel involved with this in [the] Shantinagar area of the capital,” he said.