An herbal stimulant primarily grown in Africa and banned in the United States has been showing up on the streets of Houston, prompting several arrests and raids.
A joint investigation by the Precinct 5 Constable's Office and the Texas Department of Public Safety began with a traffic stop earlier this year in Liberty County. Investigators said two men pulled over by state troopers were found chewing wads of oval shaped, green leaves.
"They knew it was something, they just didn't know what it was," said Precinct 5 Chief Deputy JJ Laine.
Laine said it was later determined the men were chewing a plant called Khat. This plant is grown in the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula and its cultural use as a stimulant dates back to the 13th century.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Khat contains the stimulants cathinone and cathine and produces an affect similar to amphetamines. Khat is banned in the United States and several European countries.
The DEA reports users can become psychologically dependent on Khat and chronic use can lead to "manic behavior with grandiose delusions, violence, suicidal depression or schizophreniform psychosis characterized by paranoid delusions."
"The first time I heard the word Khat I had absolutely no idea what we're talking about," said Laine. "The possession of it has grown in the Houston area."
Laine said Khat is a cheaper high, going for $25 to $35 an ounce. Laine said users chew it, drink it as a tea, smoke it or even sprinkle it on food.
Laine said Khat is primarily used in Houston's Somali, Yemenis and Ethiopian communities. Laine said in the last year several people have been arrested for Khat possession. There have been raids at a rental home in Bellaire and a southwest Houston apartment complex.
Laine said hundreds of pounds of Khat have been seized, along with $100,000 in cash. Laine says the drug is typically being smuggled into the country disguised as "China Tea."
"Just like other cartels, they do anything they can to get it into the country," said Laine. "We're going through an educational process now so everyone is aware of what it is, what it looks like, what it smells like."
The concern over this drug goes beyond the users. A report prepared by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction and released by the United Nations this year found "the proceeds may fund terrorist activities." The report specifically mentions the Al-Shabaab organization in Somalia.
The National Counterterrorism Center reports Al-Shabaab has ties to Al-Qaida. The report further mentions "the legitimate Khat trade is large in East Africa and therefore likely to be of interest to both criminal and terrorist organizations."
"Question of terrorist involvement in drugs is very important to us," said FBI Director James Comey.
Speaking in generalities during a trip to Houston last week, Comey said terrorist groups have long tried to tap into the illegal drug trade for money.
"So we constantly look, and I know my colleagues at DEA constantly look, at drug trafficking to see if it is generating proceeds for terrorism," said Comey.
Laine said these concerns and the fact that Khat is relatively cheap are why investigators are working to crackdown on this problem before it becomes widespread in the Houston area.
"If it's cheap people will try it, so that's one of the things we're doing now, trying to shut it down before it grows too much," said Laine.