Officials arrested a man at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Sunday for allegedly smuggling two suitcases full of the drug khat, which officials say the man intended to deliver to Minneapolis.
The 37-year-old man was headed from the United Kingdom, where the drug is legal, to Minneapolis and had been "instructed to deliver the khat to individuals in the Minneapolis area," according to a statement released by the Chicago Customs and Border Protection on Monday.
Authorities say the Maryland resident had been approached by khat traffickers in the United States who hired him to smuggle the drug from the U.K.
Customs and Border Protection officials arrested the man at the airport after discovering more than 82 pounds of the illegal drug, valued at more than $36,000, crammed into his luggage.
David Bell, the agency's public affairs liaison, said authorities suspect the man intended to hand over the drugs to members of the Somali community in Minneapolis. The man has not yet been charged, although Bell said charges are expected later Monday.
Khat, a plant-based stimulant, grows in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Yemen. About 10 million people worldwide chew the plant to create feelings of euphoria, alertness and arousal, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The drug has been used for hundreds of years as part of an established cultural tradition in East Africa and in parts of the Arabian Peninsula.
In Minnesota, health officials have reported an increase this year in the drug's use among the state's Somali refugees. They warn that khat can cause hyperactivity, insomnia, depression, and, in some cases, delusions and paranoia.
Officials say they do not know how many U.S. residents use the drug, but Bell said khat is frequently smuggled through the Chicago and Minneapolis airports. He added that the number of smugglers caught by authorities varies.
"We may have one or two people a day, and then we may have a month where we don't see anyone," Bell said.
In most cases, Bell said, khat smugglers are not U.S. citizens, and authorities chose to deport them instead of prosecuting the case.
In this case, since the man is a U.S. citizen, authorities have handed him over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents for prosecution. He is being held in a Cook County Sheriff's facility near Chicago.