This is with reference to a recent article in Kuensel regarding the import and export of Khat Plants as Moringa Tea. As per the Kuensel Article (9th May 2020) in the first week of December last year, customs officials seized drugs worth Nu 42.60 million at the DHL office in Thimphu. The consignments were bound for Hong Kong. Two women were involved in this case.

And in February 14 Kuensel article (Police bust air couriered psychotropic substance racket) it was mentioned that on December 19, Bhutan Post Office had received a suspected consignment of 4kg (Khat dried leaves) after which RBP and BNCA conducted a test to identify the substance. The Khat leaves were confirmed to contain Cathinone and Cathine. As of  February 13 the police had seized a total of 1,575kg dried Khat leaves from the courier companies in Thimphu involving 19 individuals.

Cathinone is a Schedule II (psychotropic substance with no medicinal value) and schedule IV (Psychotropic Substances with medicinal Value) of the Narcotic Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and Substance Abuse Act of Bhutan 2015.

Also, as per the WHO, Khat leaves has been categorised as a narcotic substance. Khat leaves import and export is globally banned as it is a drug and carries a sentence of minimum 10 years in India and USA. As per the Penal Code of Bhutan, a person dealing with substances in Schedule I and II NDPSSA shall be felony of first degree. Felony of the first degree carries a sentence of minimum of 15 years and maximum of life imprisonment.

Many people are suspecting people involved in the khat business getting away. As in the Kuensel Article dated May 9 the case involves only 11 individuals from the list of 19 suspects. OAG has mentioned “That there is no merit to prosecute the people involved in the export of Khat as the suspect did not know that the Moringa Tea consignment, which they were exporting to be Khat, as identified and confirmed by BNCA during the case of investigation”.

This statement from OAG is totally shocking as the suspects were not blindfolded while repackaging the Khat leaves as Moringa tea. Now a drug addict can say that they were taking the pills as it is a medicine and did not know that it was considered a drug. Drug smugglers can also say they are selling pharmaceutical medicine and not illicit drugs like Cocaine, Heroine, Ecstasy, Meth, etc.

OAG also states that as the Ethiopian agriculture ministry had issued a phytosanitary certificate to the Bhutanese consignees to make them believe it was Moringa tea. The phytosanitary certification is used to attest that the consignments meet phytosanitary (regarding plant) import and export requirements which are undertaken by the NPPO (National Plant Protection Organization) of the country where the plants, plant products or regulated articles were grown or processed. Did the phytosanitary certificate  mention that the shipment was the Khat plant(Drug)?

OAG also stated the failure on the part of the Trade officials to examine and comply with the rules of export and import has resulted in exporting Khat as Moringa tea. OAG officials also stated that BAFRA did not carry out any testing at the point of entry solely because there was a certificate to authenticate the product’s origin. OAG also blamed BAFRA’s oversight in not carrying out examinations of organic plants while entering the country. This let the Bhutanese exporters believe that the consignment received was Moringa tea and not Khat. “The office  is unable to charge the listed individuals under the NDPSS Act because there is no way to prove the knowledge on the part of Bhutanese exporters regarding the content of the consignment received were Khat,’’ OAG stated. They exported knowingly because they had every reason to believe the consignment sent to them was Moringa tea as BAFRA cleared them from the point of entry.

OAG has blamed the Agriculture Ministry of Ethiopia, Trade officials and BAFRA officials for the lapses on the import and export of the Khat leaves as Moringa tea. Everyone has been blamed in this case except the suspects who are now going scot free. OAG making these statements appear like OAG is acting like the defence lawyer for these individuals. Police had now dropped the case, according to Kuensel’s latest story of June 6.

That these people are innocent is also surprising. The irony is that some of these people involved in this Khat plant case are dealing with Herbal tea in Bhutan so they would know if the contents were actually Moringa Tea or not. And some are running their own business so they know very well the import and export rules. Had it been some farmer, monk, students, etc involved in this case then it can be possible that they were misled. The million dollar question is what were these people paid for repacking the khat leaves as Moringa tea made in Bhutan? I am sure that they will not do the repacking for a small fee.

OAG may be correct in the technicalities of the matter as there seems to be some lapses from BAFRA and the trade department but what is important for everyone to see is whether those involved are actually innocent? We should look at the larger picture and not let off these individuals on the technical grounds.

This will set a bad precedence as people will keep bringing in new drugs and say that they are innocent. Also some people laundering money can say that they are also innocent as the money is coming into the country through the official banking channel. So does it mean OAG will also blame RMA, the local banks and the foreign banks transferring the money for not checking the reasons why the money was transferred to Bhutan  and then retransferred outside the country. Likewise, if there is an accident on the Expressway,are we going to blame the driving institute for giving the certificate, RSTA for issuing a driving licence and traffic police for not stopping the speeding vehicle?

Repackaging the Khat plant in new boxes as Moringa tea made in Bhutan in itself seems like a serious offense.

Contributed by Tenzin Gyalpo,