Rinzin Wangchuk

The Narcotics Drug Law Enforcement Unit (NDLEU) of Thimphu police has given the benefit of doubt to 11 people, who were involved in illicit trafficking of Khat leaves in the name of Moringa tea, by not pursuing the case further.

This decision came after the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) dropped the case and returned to the NDLEU on April 22 stating that the case of Khat dried leaves Bhutanese exporters or courier services repacked and exported to foreign countries did not merit prosecution.

Labelled as Moringa tea, Khat dried leaves consignments were airmailed through different courier services from Ethiopia using Bhutan as a transit and repackaging hub, which was then couriered to other foreign destinations.

Khat is a flowering evergreen shrub native to East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The plant contains two alkaloids, cathinone and cathine. 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 the Narcotic Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and Substance Abuse (amended) Act of Bhutan (NDPSSA) 2018.

NDLEU’s officials said that they had to give benefit of doubt to 11 accused who were initially implicated.   

Police’s further investigation revealed that the accused were not aware of the Moringa tea consignment to be Khat.

For example, according to a police officer, one driver, who was also involved in the export of Khat leaves, travelled all the way to Samtse and few other places to explore Moringa tea since he saw a good market outside Bhutan. “If he had known that it was Khat leaves, there was no reason for him to explore it,” the police officer said.

Police’s investigation also established that the people involved in repackaging and exporting the consignments had charged nominal fees from the consignors. “They could have claimed or charged high commission given the high risk involved if they were knowingly trafficking illicit drugs like cathinone,” police officer said adding that the consignees kept US dollar five to 20 depending on the size of consignment after paying import and export taxes as well as custom duty.

An official from DHL courier service said that the shipping charge of consignments varies from destination to destination. For instance, if someone sends a consignment of 10kg to the Middle East, DHL charges around US Dollar 540 and Dollar 126 for 1kg package as shipping charge.

However, police had already cautioned Bhutan Post and other courier services to be vigilant and institute a proper declaration of contents of the consignments.

On the grounds of dropping the case, OAG stated that the suspects did not know that the Moringa tea consignment, which they were exporting to be Khat, as identified and confirmed by the Bhutan Narcotics Control Authority (BNCA) during the course of investigation.

It also stated that the agriculture ministry of Ethiopia had issued phytosanitary certificates to the Bhutanese consignees to make them believe that the consignment was Moringa tea, which also led officials to believe that it was Moringa tea. BAFRA did not carry out any testing measures at the point of entry solely because there was a certificate to authenticate the product’s origin.

OAG found that exporters misled trade officials by declaring that the so-called Moringa tea was produced in Bhutan, when both trade officials and the Bhutanese exporters knew they weren’t.

OAG letter to police also stated that the failure on the part of the trade officials to examine and comply with the rules of export and import has resulted in exporting the Khat under the guise of Moringa tea which led to believe that both trade officials and exporters were acting in good faith and had no knowledge of the consignment to be Khat.


How Khat came to limelight?

Tamu Worldwide Shipping company based in Thimphu reported to BNCA on December 19 last year that the company received a suspected consignment of four kilogrammes.

Officials from BNCA and police found that the consignment was labelled as Moringa tea. BNCA conducted a presumptive test and found cathinone.

Traffickers use websites of courier /shipping service companies and other social media platforms in Bhutan to build network contact and send their consignments. Once the traffickers established contacts with the employers and individuals, they ship Khat labelled as moringa tea to different individuals in Bhutan. The consignments are packed in cartons of various sizes between 8kg to 20kg.

The packaging is changed once Bhutanese receive it and re-sent to the designated foreign countries. As instructed, receivers remove the packages, buy new boxes from Bhutan Post, re-pack them and send it by air services.

During the investigation period, police seized about 1,600kg of Khat sent via courier service and interrogated 19 individuals based on the consignments addressed to them. Of the 19 people, police implicated six men and five women under a felony of first degree for illicit trafficking of cathinone.

The suspects were from seven courier services or shipping agencies, including Bhutan Post and e-commerce ventures, based in Thimphu. One tyre dealer was also involved.

The offence of illicit trafficking of substances under Schedule I and II of NDPSSA is a felony of the first degree if the quantity is equal to or more than two times the quantity and the defendant can be sentenced to a minimum of 15 years and a maximum of life imprisonment. The quantity determined for cathinone is five grams irrespective of purity and formulation.