Catha Edulis

Catha Edulis

What Kind of Drug Is It?

Khat is a stimulantA substance that increases the activity of a living organism or one of its parts. that comes from the fresh leaves of a shrubby bush known as Catha edulis. These leaves, along with the youngest of twigs on the bush, have both a chemical structure and an effect similar to amphetaminesPronounced am-FETT-uh-meens; stimulant drugs that increase mental alertness, reduce appetite, and help keep users awake.. As the leaves age and dry out, they lose their stimulating effect. The active ingredient in khat is cathinone. Catha edulis is most popular in eastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

Overview

The Catha edulis (khat) plant is a leafy, flowering shrub that is often planted in dense rows to act as a fence or boundary. Khat is believed to have originated in Ethiopia, a farming country in eastern Africa. The khat plant also grows wild in the surrounding countries of Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, and Kenya. Just across the Red Sea from these East African nations lies the Republic of Yemen. Yemen, which is located in the southern portion of the Arabian Peninsula, reportedly has the largest population of khat chewers worldwide. Legend has it that the plant was first transported from Africa to Arabia by missionaries who had discovered its abilities to ward off sleep during long, nighttime meditations.

A Hearty Plant

The khat plant has extremely long roots and is actually rather hard to kill. It grows best at elevations of 4,500 to 6,500 feet (1,370 to 1,980 meters). In areas with frost, the shrub grows no higher than 5 feet tall (1.5 meters). However, in areas where the rainfall is heavy, such as the highlands of Ethiopia and regions near the equator, khat trees can reach 20 feet (6 meters) in height. Khat is an extremely hearty plant. It grows very well in areas of plentiful rainfall but also grows during periods of drought when other crops fail.

Khat's flowers are small and white, and its leaves are oval in shape. When they are young, the leaves are shiny and reddish-green in color. They become yellowish and leathery as they age. The most prized parts of the plants are the young shoots, buds, and leaves near the top. Older leaves near the middle and lower sections of the plant are also used, as

The khat plant grows wild in Ethiopia, the Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, and Kenya. It is imported to Yemen, which reportedly has the largest population of khat chewers in the world. The Gale Group.
The khat plant grows wild in Ethiopia, the Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, and Kenya. It is imported to Yemen, which reportedly has the largest population of khat chewers in the world. The Gale Group.
After a long day of work harvesting durra, a man sits and relaxes while chewing khat in Ethiopia. Georg Gerster/Photo Researchers, Inc.
After a long day of work harvesting durra, a man sits and relaxes while chewing khat in Ethiopia. Georg Gerster/Photo Researchers, Inc.

are the stems, but these portions of the plant are considered inferior because their stimulating effects are not as great. The leaves of the Catha edulis are not picked until the plant is four years old.

Harvesting occurs during the dry season. Leaves gathered from plants over six years of age are most valued, possibly due to their greater alkaloidA nitrogen-containing substance found in plants. content.

A Cultural and Traditional Influence

The ancient Egyptians considered khat to be a sacred plant—a "divine food." The Egyptians did not use khat merely for its stimulant properties but rather to unlock what they considered to be the divine aspect of their human nature.

Khat is believed to have been traded even before coffee and is used throughout Middle East countries in much the same way as coffee is used in Western culture. In addition to its use as a mild stimulant, khat use in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula is part of a daily social ritual. Its intake occurs at a certain time each day and often takes place in special rooms designed strictly for that purpose.

Since ancient times, khat has also been used in religious contexts by the peoples of eastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. For example, khat was used, in moderation, as a stimulant to alleviate feelings of tiredness and hunger. Some members of the Islamic faith use khat during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year, which is spent fasting from sunrise to sunset.

The Economic Side

Khat growing in Ethiopia rose considerably in 2002 and 2003. The drought-ridden land and its impoverished inhabitants make far less money farming coffee than they do drugs. Sudarsan Raghavan discussed this situation in the San Jose Mercury News. "Faced once again with massive food shortages," some Ethiopian farmers "are uprooting their coffee trees and replacing them with khat."

Raghavan described khat as "a leafy cash crop that is chewed legally by millions of people in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East." Khat grows well even during droughts, and it resists pests that can devastate a coffee crop. "When chewed for a long time," added Raghavan, "khat has another powerful draw: It makes people feel less hungry." This could, in part, explain its use in a country with too little food to feed its people.

A similar situation exists in Yemen, where about 9 percent of the country's total cultivated area is devoted to the khat plant. Yemen also grows coffee, grapes, and maize. However, the amount of money the country makes on khat "is ten times more than those crops," explained a Gulf News reporter in 2002.

What Is It Made Of?

Although khat contains a number of chemicals, vitamins, and minerals, its most active ingredient is cathinone. Cathinone is an alkaloid with a chemical structure similar to amphetamines. (An entry on amphetamines is also available in this

Khat vendors in Djibouti, Africa, line up along a train stopped at a station in hope of selling their product to passengers. Francoise de Mulder/Corbis.
Khat vendors in Djibouti, Africa, line up along a train stopped at a station in hope of selling their product to passengers. © Francoise de Mulder/Corbis.

encyclopedia.) According to the www.streetdrugs.org Web site, "leaves less than forty-eight hours old are preferred" among khat users "to ensure a maximum potency of cathinone." As the leaves of the Catha edulis plant dry, cathinone turns into cathine, a far less powerful stimulant. The www.streetdrugs.org authors noted that "cathinone is approximately ten times more potent than cathine."

How Is It Taken?

Bitter-tasting khat leaves are typically chewed like tobacco. Users fill their mouths with fresh leaves that they chew to release the active ingredients. Khat is also sold as dried or crushed leaves, frozen leaves, or in powdered form.

Another method of ingesting khat is by chewing a paste made of khat leaves, water, and sugar or honey, sometimes flavored with herbs.

A young Kenyan man chews khat, a drug that gives people a feeling of euphoria. Scientists also are studying the plant to see if it boosts fertility in men. AP/Wide World Photos.
A young Kenyan man chews khat, a drug that gives people a feeling of euphoria. Scientists also are studying the plant to see if it boosts fertility in men. AP/Wide World Photos.

A tea made from the flowers of the khat plant—"flower of paradise" in Yemen—is considered restorative. In addition, the leaves are sometimes added to plain tea or smoked in combination with tobacco. Ethiopians often drink a juice extract made from khat leaves.

Are There Any Medical Reasons for Taking This Substance?

In the United States, khat is not approved for any medical use. Khat is mainly a recreational drugUsing a drug solely to achieve a high, not to treat a medical condition. used in social situations throughout Africa and the Middle East. It is sometimes used by farmers and laborers in those regions to ease fatigue and by students to improve their concentration, especially before exams. In its areas of origin, the processed leaves and roots of the khat plant are used to treat the flu, coughs, other respiratory ailments, and certain sexually transmitted diseases.

Usage Trends

For centuries, khat use was long confined to its native growing regions. This occurred because the leaves needed to reach their destination within forty-eight hours of harvesting to retain their

President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen (center) has asked citizens to follow his lead and only chew khat on weekends. Yemen reportedly has the largest population of khat chewers worldwide. AP/Wide World Photos.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen (center) has asked citizens to follow his lead and only chew khat on weekends. Yemen reportedly has the largest population of khat chewers worldwide. AP/Wide World Photos.

strength. However, with improved roads and air transportation, khat use spread to many other parts of the globe.

Since the 1980s, the drug has been reported in the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and various countries in Western Europe. In 2002, khat was found in packages destined for U.S. cities such as Minneapolis-St.Paul, Minnesota; New York City; Kansas City, Kansas; Kansas City, Missouri; and Detroit, Michigan. Sometimes khat is smuggled into the United States by passengers on commercial jets or across the U.S.–Canadian border by car or truck.

High Use among Immigrant Populations

In the United States and the United Kingdom, khat use is most popular among immigrants from Yemen and the East African nations of Somalia and Ethiopia. In a 2004 issue of the U.K. newspaper the Guardian, one correspondent wrote: "In Ethiopia, Yemen, and Kenya, the plant is cultivated and several tons a week are bundled up for export; the majority ends up in Britain for use by the Somali community. Around 90 percent of Somali men in Britain are thought to chew the plant." Somalia's long history of war, political turmoil, and social unrest led many of its people to leave their homeland. Many took up residence in the United Kingdom. They report that using khat helps them deal with the chaos in their lives.

The U.S. public became more aware of khat in the 1990s, when media reports on the United Nations' mission in Somalia were broadcast regularly. According to the "Intelligence Bulletin" of the U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), abuse levels in the United States "are highest in cities with sizable populations" of immigrants from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Yemen. These cities "includ[e] Boston, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Nashville, New York, and Washington, D.C."

Khat can be purchased in the United States in various ethnic bars, restaurants, grocery stores, and smoke shops. Fresh khat leaves are most often prepared for shipment in bouquet-sized bundles, wrapped in plastic bags or banana leaves, then tied together. The bundles are sprayed with water to keep the leaves fresh and moist. Refrigeration helps to preserve them.

Effects on the Body

Like all stimulants, khat increases the users' heart rate and blood pressure, makes them feel more alert, and decreases their appetite. Chewing khat produces a "highDrug-induced feelings ranging from excitement and joy to extreme grogginess." soon after it is ingested. These effects typically lessen after one and a half to three hours, but they can last for an entire day. Users report feeling energized, content, and confident, which often leads them to talk excessively. They also claim that the drug increases their powers of concentration.

Highs and Lows

Khat has amphetamine-like effects on the body. The nerve cells activated by amphetamines are numerous in the pleasure center of the brain. When the effects of khat—or any other amphetamine-like substance—wear off, users want more.

High doses or prolonged use of khat may make users appear very anxious and slightly over the edge emotionally. After the high begins to wear off, khat chewers often report feelings of drowsiness and depression. "In some cases," according to the DrugScope Web site, "it may make people feel more irritable and angry and possibly violent. psychological dependenceThe belief that a person needs to take a certain substance in order to function, whether that person really does or not. can result from regular use so that users feel depressed and low unless they keep taking it."

Long-term khat use can also bring on extreme thirst, sleeplessness, hyperactivity, hallucinationsVisions or other perceptions of things that are not really present., and nightmares. It can even lead to paranoia, or abnormal feelings of suspicion and fear. Khat has also been known to impair intellectual abilities in those who use it.

The khat addict, according to a Gulf News reporter, "passes through different psychological moods" over a five-hour time span. The best of these moods occurs at the beginning of the khat-chewing cycle, and the worst come at the end. "Joy at the beginning, silence [in] the middle, depression and worry at the end … not to mention the sleeplessness." This inability to sleep sometimes leads users to seek counteracting agents such as tranquilizers and alcohol—substances that are particularly hazardous in combination with khat.

Reactions with Other Drugs or Substances

Consuming sweet beverages with khat causes blood sugar levels to rise. Therefore, the overall effect of khat on patients with diabetesA serious disorder that causes problems with the normal breakdown of sugars in the body. is harmful. Combining khat with some antidepressant medications may cause a potentially dangerous increase in blood pressure. In addition, several studies suggest that khat consumption is associated with reproductive problems in men and women.

Khat should not be combined with niridazole (ny-RIDD-uhzole), a drug used in treating a parasitic skin diseaseInfection with parasites, which are organisms that must live with, in, or on other organisms to survive. called schistosomiasis (SHISS-tuh-soh-MY-uh-siss), also known as snail fever. Schistosomiasis is found throughout parts of Asia, Africa, and tropical America.

Treatment for Habitual Users

There are no known physical symptoms of khat withdrawal. However, users who decide to kick the habit often need to deal with the effects of psychological dependency. Quitting khat is frequently followed by depression in the user, along with a loss of energy and an increased desire to sleep. The severity of the depression varies and may lead to agitation and sometimes to sleep disturbances.

Consequences

Khat leaves are known to contain various species of fungi. Toxic chemicals may be sprayed on the plant to ward off a wide range of insects, diseases, and weeds. When the leaves are chewed, these toxins, if present, will enter the user's bloodstream.

Overall, khat use often leads to health problems. Brian Whitaker of the Guardian explained that khat "may cause mouth cancers, high blood pressure and heart attacks, and may also rot the teeth." Dr. Mohamed Khodr, a native Yemeni, noted in the New York Times that khat chewers in his native country often indulge in cigarette smoking and tobacco chewing. He added that this "lead[s] to an epidemic of cardiovascular diseases at younger ages than in the West."

Reducing khat consumption, according to researchers, would relieve several million people, mostly men, of a costly and potentially addictive habit. "Widespread frequent use of khat impacts productivity because it tends to reduce worker motivation," noted the authors of the DEA's "Drug Intelligence Brief." Some researchers argue that khat use has increased over the years because of economic decline in Africa and Yemen.

The growing khat habit could be tied to feelings of hopelessness in the face of rising poverty and joblessness in many African and Middle Eastern countries. Khat use has also spread to a greater number of women and children, indicating that the social and economic conditions in those countries were challenging at the turn of the twenty-first century.

The Law

In 1980, the World Health Organization (WHO) deemed khat a drug of abuse. But laws governing the use and possession of khat can be difficult to understand. For instance, the latest information available from DrugScope as of 2005 stated that "the khat plant itself is not controlled under the [U.K.] Misuse of

A family in Somalia carries a bag of fresh khat from a cargo plane at the airport. In Somalia chewing khat after a meal is common. In the United States and Canada, it is illegal. Liba Taylor/Corbis.
A family in Somalia carries a bag of fresh khat from a cargo plane at the airport. In Somalia chewing khat after a meal is common. In the United States and Canada, it is illegal. © Liba Taylor/Corbis.

Drugs Act, but the active ingredients, cathinone and cathine, are Class C drugs."

Khat in any form is illegal in the United States and Canada. Under the terms of the U.S. Controlled Substances Act, cathinone is considered a Schedule I drug and cathine is considered a Schedule IV drug. Schedule I drugs (including heroin and the so-called designer drugs such as 2C-B and ecstasy) have no accepted medical value in the United States and are considered highly addictive. Penalties for distributing Schedule I drugs range from a minimum of five years to a maximum of life in prison. Schedule IV drugs have a lower potential for abuse but may lead to psychological dependence in the user. Cathinone and cathine are also controlled under the United Nations' Convention on Psychotropic Substances.

More Khat Seen in the United States

Khat leaves have been illegally bundled and shipped into the United States in increasing amounts since the 1990s. According to the statistics available from the NDIC at the beginning of 2005, "the amount of khat seized by federal law enforcement officers [in the United States] increased dramatically from 14 metric tons [about 31,000 pounds] in 1995 to 37 metric tons [about 82,000 pounds] in 2001. Moreover, in the first six months of 2002, federal officers seized nearly 30 metric tons [about 66,000 pounds] of the drug."

Khat was introduced on college campuses in the United States in the 1990s. A growing number of students began using the stimulant to stay up later at night. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), khat has not really caught on in the United States, though, probably because the high it produces is not as intense as the high produced by amphetamines. A pill called Hagigat, made of powdered khat leaves, was on the market briefly in 2004. Hagigat originated in Israel and was used for its stimulant effects, but it was quickly banned.

More than 2,200 pounds (998 kilograms) of khat were seized at the Dublin Airport in 2003. The bundles were being sent to New York from London when they were intercepted in Ireland. Raghavan reported in late 2002 that "khat fetches as much as $200 a pound" in the United States. That translates to about $30 to $50 per bundle.

Despite these sizable seizures, law enforcement efforts directed against khat use in the United States have been minimal. The NDIC predicts that "khat likely will become increasingly available in the United States" but will not become as popular on the streets as cocaine and methamphetamines. According to the "Intelligence Bulletin," "abuse of the drug will remain most prevalent in communities with large Somali, Ethiopian, and Yemeni populations."

For More Information

Books

Gahlinger, Paul M. Illegal Drugs: A Complete Guide to Their History, Chemistry, Use, and Abuse. Las Vegas, NV: Sagebrush Press, 2001.

Gorman, Jack M. The Essential Guide to Psychotropic Drugs. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Keltner, Norman L., and David G. Folks. Psychotropic Drugs. Philadelphia: Mosby, 2001.

Kuhn, Cynthia, Scott Swartzwelder, Wilkie Wilson, and others. Buzzed: The Straight Facts about the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy, 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.

Periodicals

Bures, Frank. "From Civil War to Drug War." Mother Jones (November/December, 2001).

Jha, Alok. "Chew on This." Guardian (February 5, 2004).

Khodr, Mohamed. "Yemenis' Khat Habit." New York Times (September 22, 1999).

Lavery, Brian. "Huge Shipment of Khat Is Seized at Airport." New York Times (February 21, 2003).

"Pharmacological Aspects of Chewing Qat Leaves: Part I." Yemen Times (August 7-August 13, 2000).

"Pharmacological Aspects of Chewing Qat Leaves: Part II." Yemen Times (August 28-September 3, 2000).

"Qat Chewing Spreading Rapidly in Yemen." Gulf News (June 16, 2002).

Raghavan, Sudarsan. "Ethiopian Farmers Turn to Khat." San Jose Mercury News (December 29, 2002).

Whitaker, Brian. "Where the Qat Is Out of the Bag." Guardian (May 28, 2001).

Web Sites

"Catha edulis." PlantZAfrica.com. http://www.plantzafrica.com/plantcd/cathedulis.htm (accessed June 30, 2005).

"Drug Intelligence Brief: Khat." U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Agency Intelligence Division. http://www.usdoj.gov/dea/pubs/intel/02032/02032p.html (accessed June 30, 2005).

"Intelligence Bulletin: Khat (Catha edulis)." U.S. Department of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC). http://www.usdoj.gov/ndic/pubs3/3920/3920p.pdf (accessed June 30, 2005).

"Khat." DrugScope. http://www.drugscope.org.uk/druginfo/drugsearch/ (accessed June 30, 2005).

"Khat." www.streetdrugs.org. http://www.streetdrugs.org/khat.htm (accessed June 30, 2005).

See also: Amphetamines

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