Ten Israelis have been arrested in Europe over the past week while attempting to smuggle dozens of kilograms of khat in their suitcases, the Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.
The detainees, who were all described by the ministry as “young” though only three were minors, were arrested in Vienna, Copenhagen and London with the stimulant drug.
The ministry said each could be jailed for several months for the offense and that that trials were expected to take place in about two weeks. It added that several of the suspects were on their first trips abroad and were believed to have been hired by Israeli criminals to traffic in the substance.
Over 90 Israelis have been arrested in similar circumstances since November 2018, with at least one being imprisoned for 10 years in Turkey. Other Israelis have been jailed in the UK, France and Germany.
While khat is illegal in most European countries, there are no restrictions on its sale or distribution in Israel, creating a lucrative opportunity for criminals, according to a Channel 12 report last month.
Hundreds of Israelis, many of them young people from poorer backgrounds, have reportedly been paid NIS 2,000-5,000 ($580-$1,440) to take suitcases full of khat abroad.
Tax authorities and airport police in Israel cannot stop the smugglers from leaving Israel because they have no authority to do so, according to the report.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan is working with the Economy Ministry to curb the smuggling scheme by issuing an order making khat production illegal.
Khat is a flowering plant native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
Khat leaves contain two amphetamines, cathinone and cathine. Among the positive effects are a sense of euphoria, increased alertness, and relief from fatigue. However, they also present several health risks, including depression.
Among communities from the areas where the plant is native, khat chewing has a history as a social custom dating back thousands of years analogous to the use of coca leaves in South America and betel nut in Asia.
The traditional form of khat chewing in Yemen involves only male users; khat chewing by females is less formal and less frequent. Researchers estimate about 70–80% of Yemenis between 16 and 50 years old chew khat, at least on occasion. Approximately 80–90% of male and 35% of female Yemenis chew khat daily.
An estimated 5 to 10 million people globally use khat on a daily basis.