Capt. Mark Mayton, commander of the unit, said it is the first time his agents and K-9 teams have seen the flowering evergreen shrub native to East Africa, primarily Somalia and Ethiopia, and the Arabian Peninsula. On its website, Drug Enforcement Administration says the leaves, twigs and shoots of the khat shrub are most often sold and abused.
In a press release, Sheriff Clark Millsap and Cartersville Police Department Chief Tommy Culpepper said the stop of Hussein Dahir Sheikaden, 31, of Stone Mountain, occurred during a concentrated patrol of the Interstate 75 corridor in Bartow County. Somalia native Sheikaden allegedly failed to maintain his lane, and was pulled over shortly before midnight in the northbound lane near the Cass-White Road exit.
In a subsequent search of the vehicle, a K-9 deputy discovered two suitcases containing 400 bundles of suspected khat shoots or twigs. Mayton valued those at at least $250,000.
"The drug is unique as compared to most other illicit drugs because it has an extremely short shelf life and has no legitimate medical use," Mayton said in the release. "Within approximately 40 hours of being harvested the chemical compounds begin to change, which alters the effects of the drug."
Users chew the plant like tobacco but can dry khat to make a tea or a chewable paste. It also can be smoked or sprinkled on food, DEA says. Common side effects include hyperactivity and hallucinations.
"It's almost a methamphetamine effect," Mayton said, adding khat can be ground and snorted or melted down and injected intravenously.
Khat is normally wrapped in banana leaves because it can be absorbed through the skin, Mayton added. "They put that on there to protect themselves and people from touching it."
The substance is legal in much of Europe, East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula but illegal in the United States. DEA says khat, generally smuggled in passenger luggage, overnight mail or shipped as air cargo marked as vegetables, is usually sent packaged in bundles and wrapped in plastic or banana leaves to retain moisture and freshness.
"The K-9 deputy picked it right out. ... He recognized it and confirmed it with research on scene," Mayton said in a Thursday interview. "It's important to recognize drugs from all around the world because basically Atlanta is an international city and Atlanta is a hub city [for the drug trade]. We're likely to see ecstasy coming from European countries as well, South American countries as well. You got to be able to recognize all of it."