ICE agents arrest 18 for drug trafficking in the stimulant khat

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has arrested 18 people of Somali and Yemeni descent, accusing them of drug trafficking and conspiracy to distribute of khat, a natural, plant-based stimulant. Khat, also known as “Miraa” and “Sallaa,” is consumed by chewing the leaves of a flowering plant known as Catha edulis.

While it is commonly consumed in Somalia, East Africa and the Middle East, khat contains a stimulant called cathinone, which is a Schedule I controlled substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Although ICE was responsible for the arrests, none of the people arrested were in the U.S. illegally. Several of the accused are U.S. citizens, and the arrests occurred in Virginia, Maryland, New York and Ohio, according to the U.S. Attorney for Eastern Virginia, where the federal criminal case was filed.

According to an affidavit filed by ICE, the group is accused of trafficking more than 4,400 kilograms of khat, which is estimated to be worth approximately $2.64 million.

ICE began drug trafficking probe in 2009 after seizing khat at several U.S. airports

According to officials, an ICE agent suspected a connection between several khat seizures that had been made at a number of different airports across the United States, and the agency initiated an investigation. The probe resulted in the seizure of more than 800 packages sent through the U.S. Mail and express mail shippers such as FedEx and DHL. Each of the packages is said to have contained khat, and law enforcement believes they indicate a khat trafficking ring that had been in operation since 2005.

In addition to the mail and express shipments, prosecutors accuse the alleged leader of the group of arranging for people to smuggle khat into the U.S. from England, Canada and the Netherlands for approximately $1,000 per trip. They also accuse the man of suggesting that the substance be smuggled in children’s suitcases to avoid detection.

If the accused are convicted of drug trafficking and conspiracy, they could face up to 20 years in federal prison.

Source: Westlaw News & Insight, “U.S. arrests 18 Somalis, Yemenis in qat ring,” Jeremy Pelofsky, May 19, 2011