The District is moving to stiffen penalties for a little-known drug that authorities suspect is used by cabdrivers in the city to stay alert and to finance terrorism overseas.
Parts of the khat plant—a flowering evergreen shrub native to East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula—when fresh can produce effects similar to those of cocaine. Chewing the leaves is socially acceptable in countries such as Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia.
In the District and elsewhere across the country, officials are noticing and combating the drug’s use: In 2004, federal agents seized 3,000 pounds of khat worth more than $5 million at the Port of Baltimore. The Metropolitan Police Department in May arrested nearly three dozen people and seized 30 pounds of khat during a raid in the Northwest neighborhood of Shaw.
Khat is generally sent to the United States via couriers who put the plant in their suitcases, or it is sent by express mail, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The plant is purchased from farmers in the Horn of Africa, then sent in the planes of area warlords to Europe, where it is sold to middlemen and shipped to the United States, the DEA said.
Detective James said American women are occasionally hired as khat couriers, or “mules.” The plant is packed with dry ice when shipped and freeze-dried upon its arrival to preserve its freshness.
In the United States, khat can sell for as much as $600 a kilogram or $60 for a bundle of 40 leafed twigs, according to the DEA. Merchants on the Internet advertise khat seeds for sale, and Detective James said the plant is sold in some D.C. restaurants “under the table.”
“If you go into [ethnic] restaurants and think you can purchase it, they stop talking,” he said. “They act like they don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The plant has become a viable revenue source for the Ethiopian economy, which is best known for its coffee production but has few other lucrative exports.
Khat is used among hired drivers who take the drug to stay alert during long shifts, Inspector Bray and Detective James said. No drivers interviewed by The Washington Times said they had heard of their colleagues using khat on the job.
Habtamu Yacob, an Ethiopian and independent cabdriver stopped Friday along Ninth Street Northwest, said he knew the drug is illegal in the United States but “when you go to Somalia or [an] African country, nobody bothers you.”