Somalilandsun – European imports of khat – a plant chewed as a stimulant – have rocketed recently with border officials seizing 1.3 tonnes of it in Geneva alone this year.Swiss customs staff have documented the vast hauls at Geneva airport over the last two years and show that, despite being made illegal, smugglers often made no attempt to hide the plants.
Whole suitcases have been neatly ram packed full of bundles of the plant and nothing else.
The amount of khat seized by Geneva customs officials has soared nearly ten-fold in two years, from 168.6kg in 2011, to 623.5kg in 2012, and to date this year, 1.3 tonnes.
Khat (Catha edulis) is a plant from Africa which is chewed as a stimulant, provoking a feeling of euphoria. It is popular in a number of countries, particularly in the Horn of Africa, and its use in Europe appears to have grown substantially in the last few years.
It has been banned in the US and most EU states, including Switzerland, with British Home Secretary Theresa May announcing last month she would enforce a UK ban on khat, effectively classifying it as a Class C drug.
According to GenevaLunch.com, relatively small amounts of the drug were in the past found mainly in traffickers using the forests and back roads around Geneva to cross the border.
The smallest amount they had seized was 1.48kg being brought into the country by a Swiss resident, but now the largest haul recorded is 95kg. The find was picked up in the freight area of the airport where it was heading for the United States, the news service said.
The traffickers in Switzerland tend to be Somalis who live in the UK although more recently, customs officials have reported a trend in traffickers from Hungary, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, according to the local news service.
The natural stimulant tends to be sold by the ‘box’ costing between £14 and £21 for around 200 grams. After the euphoric feeling subsides, it is said to be followed by a low, and subsequent passivity.
Among communities in Ethopia, Somalia and the Yemen, chewing the flowering plant has a long history as a social custom dating back thousands of years.
But the leaves contain cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant that can be addictive. It has a molecular structure similar to that of amphetamines.
Consumed in excess, it is said to provoke hallucinations and psychological problems, although in 1980 the World Health Organization classified it as a drug of abuse that can produce ‘mild to moderate psychological dependence’ (less than tobacco or alcohol).
In the UK, Mrs May has pushed for its ban, despite advice against the move by an official advisory body.
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in the UK reports that more than 2,500 tonnes, worth about £13.8m, was imported to the UK in 2011/12, bringing in £2.8m of tax revenues.
Khat ‘houses’ in Britain have been linked to terrorism, with police targeting those in Woolwich, London, amid fears they are recruiting grounds for Islamic extremists.
Mrs May’s proposed ban means khat will be treated as a class C drug, like anabolic steroids and ketamine.