1,575kg cathinone via courier services seized since December 19

Rinzin Wangchuk

Following a complaint to the Bhutan Narcotics Control Authority (BNCA), Thimphu police scrutinised and busted large controlled psychotropic substances in consignments airmailed through different courier services.

Continued monitoring revealed a drug smuggling racket operated from Ethiopia using Bhutan as a transit point to ferry drugs to other foreign destinations including the Middle East.

A shipping or courier service company in Thimphu reported to BNCA on December 19 last year that the company received a suspected consignment of 4kg.

Officials from BNCA and police went together at the complainant’s office and found that the consignment was labeled as Moringa or herbal tea. On request of the police, BNCA conducted a presumptive test to identify and determine the presence of a substance in a sample.

“The test result showed that the substance contains cathinone,” Thimphu city police’s officer-in-command (OC) for narcotic drugs, Major Namgay Dorji, said.

On further investigation, police found that the consignments were pouring in continuously at the Bhutan Post Office and other logistics companies. Laboratory test at BNCA confirmed that the dried leaves contained chemical, cathinone.

“It was dried khat leaves containing cathinone and not Moringa tea,” Major Namgay Dorji said.   

Modus operandi

The international drug trafficking syndicate uses Bhutan as trafficking route for shipping their illicit consignments from Ethopia to foreign destinations.

Traffickers use websites of courier /shipping service companies and other social media platforms in Bhutan to build network contact and send their consignments. Some websites have details like name of the company, employer and employees with their designations, emails and contact numbers. Some companies have created Facebook pages with addresses and contact numbers.

Once the traffickers established contacts with the employers and individuals, they ship their consignments of khat dried leaves labelled as Moringa tea addressed to different individuals in Bhutan. The consignments are packed in cartons of various sizes between 8kg to 20kg.

The addressees are then asked to change the packaging once they received the consignments and re-send it to the designated foreign countries.

As instructed, receivers remove the packages, buy new boxes from Bhutan Post, re-pack them and send it to other foreign destinations by air services. Here it involves both import and export.

It was learnt that all the postal charges and customs clearances for the consignments were paid from the country of origin. However, Kuensel could not confirm the commission, if any, received by dealers for re-packaging and sending it to another country.

As of yesterday, police had seized a total of 1,575kg dried khat leaves. “We kept on seizing consignments arriving in various postal and courier services since the illicit racket of psychotropic substances with no medical value was unearthed on December 19,” Major Namgay Dorji said.

Police also said that they were investigating and interrogating 19 individuals based on the consignments addressed to them.

Cautioning the people, Major Namgay said that the traffickers are getting into the Bhutanese social media platform, companies’ websites and e-commerce to establish their networks. “People should not post their details and addresses on their websites or social media platforms,” he said adding that innocent people are becoming vulnerable to such rackets.

BNCA also issued a public notification yesterday that the general public, courier services, import and export houses to refrain from engaging in import/export of such products. “Any individual coming across such suspicious substance may kindly inform BNCA or police,” it stated.


What is khat and cathinone?

Khat is a flowering evergreen shrub native to East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The plant contains two alkaloids, cathinone and cathine. It is not found in Bhutan. However, khat is usually chewed like doma.

Cathinone is a naturally occurring stimulant that is found in the khat plant.

In Bhutan, cathinone is a Schedule II controlled drug and listed as psychotropic substances with no medicinal value under Narcotic Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and Substance Abuse (amended) Act of Bhutan (NDPSSA) 2018.

The offence of illicit trafficking of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances under Schedule I and II of NDPSSA shall be a felony of first degree if the quantity is equal to or more than two times the quantity determined in Schedule VII of the Act.

The quantity determined for cathinone is five grams irrespective of purity and formulation.

As per the Penal Code, a defendant convicted of a felony of the first degree shall be sentenced to a minimum of 15 years and a maximum of life imprisonment.


Using Bhutan as trafficking route

This is the second case involving illicit trafficking of controlled substances shipping through courier services busted in Thimphu within two months.

In the first week of December last year, customs officials seized 19.30kg of hashish and 600 grams of crystal meth (methamphetamine), both illicit contraband items worth more than Nu 42.60 million at DHL office, a courier service based in Thimphu. The consignments were bound for Hong Kong.

Seized items were officially handed over to police for further investigation and to apprehend the suspect or consignor who was based in Phuentsholing. Police found that suspect, Mahesh Lama is in Nepal. Two women who claimed that they were the business partners of Mahesh Lama, paid shipment charges in Phuentsholing.

In the 1980s, criminal syndicates based in third countries had used three Bhutanese, two men and a woman, as carriers for the contraband substances to a foreign destination. However, they were arrested at one of the international airports in Japan and detained for eight years.