Police have charged a 51-year-old man with selling “khat,” an illegal and obscure drug, from the back room of a convenience store where he worked.
The practice of chewing khat leaves dates back thousands of years in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. But in America, the drug was classified as a controlled substance by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 1993.
Khat sales are not unheard of in North Carolina. Agents with the N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement last year made arrests at four ABC-licensed outlets in Wake, Wayne, Franklin and Hoke counties, according to Patty McQuillan, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Public Safety. McQuillan said ALE agents have seen an increase of khat cases over the past decade, but the agency doesn’t track khat arrests.
Police say Berhanu Gezahegn Maru was selling khat from Central Mini Mart in the 1300 block of Oakwood Avenue, across the street from St. Augustine’s University. Detectives seized more than seven pounds of khat leaves, according to search warrants made public this week.
Maru is being held in the Wake County jail in lieu of $125,000 bail. He is a native of Ethiopia, and federal authorities have placed an immigration hold on him because they think he may be in the country illegally, according to arrest records.
Police have accused Maru of manufacturing and selling khat (pronounced “cot”), a flowering shrub native to northeast Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The plant contains cathinone, a psychoactive stimulant that can cause psychological addiction. The chewing of khat leaves releases chemicals that are related to amphetamines, which give the chewer a mild high that’s akin to drinking strong coffee, according to the World Health Organization.
The plant is illegal in many countries, including Canada, but it is legal in Yemen, Israel, Djibouti, Somalia and Maru’s native Ethiopia, where it is the nation’s second most valuable commodity export after coffee, according to the CIA World Fact Book.
Tecleab Maasho, who owns Central Mini Mart, said Maru has been working at the store for several years. Maasho said he was surprised by the charges and the allegation that Maru was in the United States illegally.
“I always thought he was a citizen,” Maasho, a native of Ethiopia who lives in Cary, said. “The last time he went home was eight or nine years ago.”
Maasho said he didn’t know khat was being sold from his store, but notes that it’s not illegal where he and Maru come from.
“Khat is a common thing in Ethiopia, especially in the southern part where you see people chewing it. There are no rules restricting it in Ethiopia,” he said. “It’s in the Arab countries, all the way to the Kenyans.”
Historically, khat sales and use in the United States have been highest in places with sizable numbers of immigrants from places where the plant is cultivated, such as Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center. The number of Ethiopians living in North Carolina nearly tripled from 2000 to 2015, to about 4,500, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Raleigh police spokeswoman Laura Hourigan said “khat is not as commonly seen as many other types of drugs” in the city, but said she doesn’t know how often police make arrests for it.
Hourigan said there was no indication in the police report of where the leaves seized from the convenience store were grown.
Three days before Maru’s arrest, police relied on a confidential informant and “electronic surveillance” that enabled them to witness Maru making a drug sale they had orchestrated using marked money. The confidential informant met with Maru in front of Central Mini Mart and “engaged in conversation concerning the amounts and prices of Khat,” Detective E. Camacho wrote in a search warrant application.
Maru drove a 2003 Infiniti with the informant to Maru’s home on Huron Road. Maru “grabbed a quantity of Khat” from a black Chevrolet SUV parked in the driveway and drove back to the store, Camacho wrote in the warrant.
Drug and vice detectives followed the Infiniti. Maru and the informant arrived at the store and went into the rear office, Camacho wrote.
“Through electronic surveillance, you can see Mr. Maru removing a quantity of Khat (Cathinone) from one larger bag and place it in two smaller bags which he sold to the [confidential informant],” Camacho wrote.
Detectives arrived at Maru’s home Feb. 10 and seized documents from two vehicles parked in the driveway. The next day, detectives searched Central Mini Mart and seized 7.6 pounds of khat, a Samsung cellphone and a box of plastic bags, according to the search warrant.
Maru was charged with one felony count each of possession with intent to manufacture, sell and deliver a controlled substance, delivering a controlled substance and selling a controlled substance.