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What is Khat?

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Updated September 20, 2012

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Definition:

Khat is a drug composed of the leaves of a wild, East African shrub called Catha edulis, which contains two mild stimulants: cathinone and cathine. Nearly 30% of adolescent girls, and over 70% of adolescent boys, chew khat in Eastern Ethiopia. Its use is associated with older age, male gender, the Muslim religion, and peer influence. Chewing khat is also a common habit of family and other relatives among high school students.

Effects of Khat

Khat has a stimulant effect when chewed—similar to the leaves of the coca plant, which is used for making cocaine. Chewing sessions will typically last 3-4 hours, with the effects being felt about an hour after chewing starts.

The effects are similar to those of other stimulants, such as caffeine. Users may become talkative, alert, elated, and experience euphoria. Some feel increased self esteem, and others describe increased imagination and the ability to associate ideas.

As khat chewing is an important social ritual among Somalis, Yemenis, and Ethiopians, it helps to maintain a sense of connection to the community and home among people who have migrated to other parts of the world. As a result, a small khat-chewing international drug trade has developed.

Risks of Khat

Although khat is a relatively low-risk drug, it's associated with an increased risk for a variety of medical complications, including: dental disease and mouth cancers, heart problems, liver disease, sexual issues, constipation, sleep problems, and reduced appetite.

It's unclear whether the health risks associated with khat use are directly related to the drug cathinone, to the consumption of caffeinated drinks that intensify the high, or if they're partially related to inhalation of second-hand smoke in poorly ventilated chewing houses. Some problems may be the result of toxic pesticides, which users do not wash off prior to chewing because they believe washing the leaves will reduce their potency.

Mental health problems associated with khat use, including psychosis symptoms, are documented but not well understood. Khat use has also been associated with symptoms of depression, mood swings, and violent behavior, and it can lead to relationship and social problems—especially when khat use takes men away from their families for extended periods, and when large amounts of money are spent on the drug.

Although khat is considered a relatively safe drug, deaths have been associated with its use.

Khat Addiction

Chewing releases the drug slowly, so it doesn't produce the same immediate and intense high of addictive drugs such as cocaine and meth. But up to 40% of khat users develop tolerance to, and a dependence on, khat. Khat chewing is traditionally an all-male social activity, but those women who do chew khat tend to do so alone and in secrecy, and are at high risk of dependence.

Is Khat Legal?

Cathinone is a Schedule I controlled drug, so khat is illegal in the USA and Canada, but not in other Western countries. It is legal in its native Africa, in the UK, and in Australia.

Sources

Corkery, J., Schifano, F., Oyfeso, A., Ghodse, A., Hamid, T., Thomy, T., Naidoo, V., Button, J. "‘Bundle of fun’ or ‘bunch of problems’? Case series of khat-related deaths in the UK." Drugs: Education, Prevention & Policy, 18:408-425. 2011.

Feigin, A., Higgs, P., Hellard, M., and Dietze, P."The impact of khat use on east African communities in Melbourne: A preliminary investigation." Drug and Alcohol Review, 31:288-293. 2012.

National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). DrugFacts: Khat. National Institute of Drug Abuse. 2011.

Nutt, D. Drugs Without the Hot Air: Minimising the Harms of Legal and Illegal Drugs Cambridge: UIT. 2012.

Reda, A., Moges, A., Biadgilign, S., Wondmagegn, B. "Prevalence and determinants of Khat (Cathaedulis) chewing among high school students in Eastern Ethiopia: A cross-sectional study." Public Library of Science ONE, 7:1-5. 2012.

Pronunciation: cot
Also Known As: cathinone, cathine, Catha Edulis Forsk, Catha edulis, Cathaedulis
Alternate Spellings: kaat, khaat
Common Misspellings: kaht, caat
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