The seizure of several consignments of a new drug 'Khat' disguised as 'green tea' at the country's main airport has raised fears of a fresh drug epidemic sweeping the country after phensedyl and yaba.

Law enforcement agencies have seized several consignments, including two large shipments of New Psychotropic Substance (NPS), locally known as Khat, or 'miraa' or - more mystically - 'Tea of the Arabs', recently from Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport and General Post Office (GPO) in the city.

Khat, a flowering evergreen shrub native to East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, has been chewed for centuries in the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula. It is supposed to make them more alert and raise energy levels, which is why supporters of Khat say it is as harmless as coffee or tea.

The dried leaves can also be used in this way, though they are less potent. Some Khat users also smoke the drug, put it in tea or sprinkle it on food items.

However, Khat is internationally labeled as 'C' category drug. The World Health Organization (WHO) classified it in 1980 as a drug of abuse that can produce psychological dependence.

The plant (Catha edulis) contains two alkaloids, cathinone and cathine, which act as stimulants. Users simply chew the green Khat leaves, keeping a ball of partially chewed leaves against the inside of their cheeks.

A senior officer of a security agency requesting anonymity told UNB that as there is no remarkable number of consumers of the new drug Khat here, Bangladesh is being used as a transit for strategically reason for last several months.

On August 31, the Department of Narcotics Control (DNC) and Dhaka Customs confiscated 468 kilograms of Khat, estimated to be worth around Tk 70 lakh from the foreign parcel unit of cargo village at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport.

Later on September 9, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) seized even bigger consignment of 1,600 kilograms of the so-called 'legal high', worth Tk 2.38 crorefrom the foreign parcel unit of the General Post Office (GPO).

Both shipments arrived here from Ethiopia.

DNC Additional Director (Intelligence) Najrul Islam Sikder said the DNC's intelligence wing first received information from the international intelligence agency, which has been dealing with drug abuse, on the last Eid-ul-Azha day that a consignment of 23 cartoons Khat was scheduled to reach at the foreign parcel unit of the cargo village at Dhaka airport on August 27.

Based on the information, the DNC officials started searching for the suspected cartons at the foreign parcel unit from the morning till 11 pm but in vein, he said.

By this time other intelligence agencies were alerted and the customs officials finally became able to detect the suspected cartons, carrying Khat on August 31 at the cargo village of the airport, he added.

The DNC arrested one Nazim, 47, from his Baily Road residence in connection with the recovery of the new drug's consignment.

"During interrogation, Nazim revealed that he went to Dubai around 25 years ago taking a job of a peon under Defense force there. Later, he started an Advertisement agency several years ago when he was introduced with a Ethiopian national named Abdi there. Later, Abdi offered him to start Khat business in Bangladesh," Najrul Islam Sikder said.

Nazim returned Bangladesh in 2016 and later started the business several months ago, he said.

Usually the drug consignments were being brought to Dhaka via Dubai from Ethiopia through air and then the Khat are packed as "green tea" and then exported to London, USA and England, said the intelligence official.

Replying to a query, the DNC's additional director said the number of Khat consumers in Bangladesh is relatively very low as many of the drug users are yet to get exposed to the new substance which costs Tk 6,000 to Tk 15,000 a kilogram.

"As we have already alerted all the air and land ports in the country, whenever such type of consignments reach here, law enforcement agencies must seized those contraband items," he said. He asserted that from now on it will be very difficult for the drug traders to use the country as a transit point.

Nazrul Islam Sikder said most of the consignments were sent from Ethiopia to fake addresses. "We have identified more than 20 fake addresses," he said.

The DNC also arrested another one named SM Babul Ahmed from Monipuripara in the city. During interrogation, he revealed that he has also exported such item to Australia as "green tea".

Both Nazim and Babul who are now in jail revealed that the payment of the consignments was disbursed from Dubai, UAE.

"They (Nazim and Babul) were not required to invest any penny for the business. Their responsibility was to receive the consignment and then exported those to designated country after repacking as "green tea". They got commission from Dubai around USD 1500 per consignment," said the official.

Replying to another query, the DNC's top intelligence official said Nazim has given orders for three metric tons Khat to Ethiopia, but received only two little consignments.

As seizer news of several consignments of Khat by Bangladeshi agencies already spread over the media, remaining consignment may not send from Ethiopia, he opined.

How dangerous for human health

The United Nation office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) defines NPS as "substances of abuse, either in a pure form or a preparation, that are not controlled by the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs or the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, but which may pose a public health threat".

UNODC says the new psychoactive substances have been known in the market by terms such as "designer drugs", "legal highs", "herbal highs", "bath salts", "research chemicals" and "laboratory reagents".

Furthermore, the main substance groups of NPS sold in the market are aminoindanes, synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic cathinones, phencyclidine-type substances, phenethylamines, piperazines, plant-based substances, salvia divinorum and khat, and tryptamines.

NPS available on the market have similar effects as substances under international control such as cannabis, cocaine, heroin, LSD, MDMA (ecstasy) or methamphetamine.

Therefore, the herbal plant is very dangerous like other lethal drugs, experts say.

The two main stimulants in khat speed up the user's mind and body, like a less powerful amphetamine.

According to the experts, Khat has several impacts on the human body if used for long. It makes people happy and talkative but can cause insomnia and temporary confusion. Chewed for a few hours it leaves users with a feeling of calm, described by some as "blissed out". The drug could make pre-existing mental health problems worse and it can provoke feelings of anxiety and aggression. It can also inflame the mouth and damage teeth, and there are concerns about the long-term risk of mouth cancers.

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