U.S. Coast Guard, CBP Seize 20,000 Pounds of Khat at Port of Seattle

Image courtesy CBP

Published Jul 24, 2022 10:17 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection recently teamed up for an unusual drug bust at the Port of Seattle: 20,000 pounds of khat. Marijuana, cocaine, fentanyl and heroin are common enough, but only occasionally do border control agents in the United States pick up a shipment of the Middle Eastern stimulant drug. 

A joint Coast Guard-CBP investigation led to the seizure of more than 20,000 pounds of dried khat with an estimated street value of $3.6 million at the Puget Sound seaport. It was the largest seizure of its kind ever recorded in the region. 

Khat is a plant grown in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and it contains the amphetamine cathinone. Its leaves are chewed or dried for tea. Cathinone is habit-forming and psychoactive, and it is classified as a controlled substance in the United States. The class is best known in America as a synthetic powder, marketed on the street as "bath salts" - a cheap and dangerous substitute for methamphetamine. The natural version is a socially-accepted drug in Yemen, Somalia and Ethiopia, and some mariners may remember it as the stimulant of choice for Somali pirates. 

On May 27, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Coast Guard officers at the Port of Seattle conducted an exam on a container that appeared to contain khat. This particular shipment was destined for the United States market, and it was shipped from Kenya disguised as "green tea." Samples were taken for inspection at a U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory, and the product tested positive for cathinone. CBP seized all 20,000-plus pounds for destruction. 

“This khat seizure demonstrates Customs and Border Protection officers’ effectiveness, dedication and expertise searching through the tens of thousands of international containers to find the proverbial needle in the haystack,” said J. Rene Ortega, CBP’s Port Director for the Area Port of Seattle.