Khat is a plant that contains two stimulating chemicals, cathine and cathinone, which are released when the plant is chewed. It is native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Chewing khat is a tradition dating back thousands of years, a social activity in the region that encourages conversation and decision-making. Indeed, khat consumption can be traced back to ancient Egypt. Although the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies it as an addictive drug, it is not considered highly addictive, at least not as much as alcohol or tobacco. Khat is most often chewed, but it can also be dried and consumed like tea.
It is, however, illegal in many countries, particularly in Europe and North America, because of the amphetamine-like stimulants the plant contains. The United Kingdom is one of the few European countries where it is legal and unregulated, and allows its production and consumption.
The plant itself takes about 8 years to reach its maximum height, between 1.40 and 3 meters. In the past, khat was only consumed in the regions where it was grown, as it only gives the desired effect when fresh. However, with the advent of better global distribution channels, khat consumption has been recorded worldwide. It is estimated that 10 million people around the world consume it daily.
Its effects are comparable to those of a particularly strong coffee, causing mild euphoria and excitement, accompanied by an urge to chat. The stimulant effects occur even faster than amphetamines, with similar hyperactive behaviors.
Khat is not without health risks and as an addictive drug, after prolonged use it has been known to cause withdrawal symptoms, including mild depression, lethargy and loss of appetite. Prolonged use can damage the liver, permanently darken teeth, increase the risk of ulcers and decrease libido.
Khat has relatively few street names compared to other drugs, probably because it is not particularly popular in developed countries, being little known and having a reputation as a harmless drug. However, in the regions in which it is grown, khat is referred to by various terms that seem to be more a matter of regional pronunciation than slang. These terms include “catha”, “chaat”, “gat”, “kat”, “qat”, “qut”, “tschaad”, “tohai”, “tohat” and “tschut”. It is also called “Abyssinian tea”, “Kus es Salahin” or “African salad”. Its Latin name is “Catha edulis”.
As a little known drug, whose trafficking is severely punished in many countries, khat has not yet had a real impact on Western culture or language. Although quantities of illicitly trafficked khat are seized by authorities in many countries each year, much of it appears to be destined for expatriate communities.
The effects of khat have been described as similar to those of a particularly strong coffee. The main effects include an increased alertness, followed by a feeling of calm after chewing khat for a long time. There is also an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, which is accompanied by mild euphoria and hyperactivity, similar to that experienced with amphetamines. Users also lose their appetite and have dilated pupils. These effects can last up to 24 hours, but most often will not last beyond 90 minutes to 3 hours.
Khat is an addictive drug and like any such drug, it is also associated with some negative effects, especially after prolonged use. Withdrawal symptoms can include mild depression, irritability, lethargy and involuntary muscle twitching, as well as a tendency toward aggression and anxiety. Users may also experience nightmares, insomnia and disorientation, sometimes for days after chewing khat.
Long-term risks include liver damage, permanent tooth discoloration and increased exposure to ulcers. Although khat can stimulate the libido for a short time after chewing the plant, prolonged use can result in impotence. In the most severe cases of prolonged use, addicts can sometimes suffer from hallucinations. Because khat increases heart rate and blood pressure, users are much more likely to have a heart attack, and chewing the drug puts them at risk for oral cancer. It is also known to cause constipation.
There is no scientifically established link between khat use and mental illness, but it is generally believed that it can worsen symptoms in people prone to psychological disorders.
Khat occurs naturally in only two regions of the world, which happen to be geographically very close: the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The Horn of Africa encompasses Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia, while the Arabian Peninsula lies just across the Red Sea, where khat cultivation and consumption is limited mainly to Yemen. It is also consumed in neighboring countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, but is illegal in Eritrea. It could also be cultivated on a small scale in some countries such as the UK, where the drug is not a controlled substance. However, the climate would not be suitable at all, making it impossible to grow khat with the intention of supplying it as a drug.
Khat is an important part of the national culture and identity of Yemen, where chewing khat is a social activity, similar in many ways to the way Westerners treat coffee. Its effects, which make consumers more lively and talkative, make it an ideal substance in these cultures to encourage conversation, and khat is deeply embedded in the country’s corporate culture, but only among Yemenis. It is chewed mostly by men, though women are also free to do so, either with men on weekends or in their own rooms.
Much of Yemen’s agricultural resources are devoted to growing khat; indeed, it is estimated that crop irrigation accounts for about 40% of the country’s water resources. This could be a problem in the future, especially as the amount of land under cultivation continues to increase at a rapid pace. Land devoted to khat cultivation in Yemen increased more than 12-fold between 1970 and 2000 and this does not seem to be decreasing any time soon, mainly because it is a very lucrative crop.
Although most khat is consumed in the regions where it is grown, it is known to be exported to other countries, mainly to expatriate communities. This has only become possible with the advent of better infrastructure and transportation, as khat has no stimulating effect if not consumed fresh. It is, however, illegal in most countries, and although it is not currently considered a priority for drug law enforcement agencies, seizures have increased in recent years. Icelandic police, for example, intercepted their very first shipment of khat in August 2010. The second arrived only a few months later.
As a cultural tradition emanating from the regions where it is grown, khat has not yet had a significant impact elsewhere, outside of immigrant populations. This may be due to cultural differences, but may also be a result of the availability of other drugs outside of these regions. Cannabis, cocaine, amphetamines, and others all tend to be cheaper and more readily available, especially in Europe and North America, despite their illegality. Another aspect could be the side effects, including impotence and permanent tooth discoloration, which for many Europeans and North Americans may outweigh the potential benefits of prolonged khat use, especially when more potent alternatives are readily available. Some European countries such as the Netherlands are considering legalizing khat, while the United States classifies it as a Schedule I substance.
FACTS AND STATISTICS
- Khat is grown primarily in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, where chewing it is a cultural tradition dating back thousands of years.
- It is considered one of the least addictive drugs, at least less so than tobacco, alcohol, solvents or anabolic steroids.
- However, regular users can still become addicted.
- Khat contains two stimulant chemicals, cathinone and cathine. It is not yet understood exactly how these chemicals work.
- It takes 7-8 years for a khat plant to reach its full size, but its leaves, which are the part that is chewed or smoked, can be harvested several times a year.
- It is important that the khat leaves are kept fresh in order to get a stimulating effect.
- When they dry, the strongest chemical, called cathinone, breaks down, leaving behind the weaker chemical cathine.
- In Yemen, khat is smoked mostly by men, but sometimes by women.
- It is a culturally important social drug in the regions in which it is grown. Local people often gather to spend the afternoon together chewing khat and enjoying its stimulating effects, which include increased alertness and a tendency to talk more.
- Khat is not very popular outside of the regions where it is grown, except among immigrant communities abroad. As it is a perishable product and illegal in most countries, it can be difficult to get a steady supply.
- It is completely legal in the UK, unlike most other European countries, Canada and the US, where it is not.
- Khat is most often chewed, but it can also be dried and consumed like tea.
- The exact origin of khat is not known with certainty and some speculate that it may have been originally grown in Ethiopia.
- Khat itself should not technically be illegal, but cathine and cathinone are.
- An estimated 10 million people worldwide use khat on a daily basis.
- In Yemen, 82% of men and 43% of women have reportedly tried khat.
- In a 1997 study of Somali immigrants in London, 76% reported consuming more khat in the UK than they did in Somalia.
- In response to a 2005 WHO questionnaire sent to 67 countries, only 9 responded that khat was consumed in their country.
- Of these 9 countries, only Kenya reported widespread khat consumption, estimating it at 20%.
- In 1970, the area of land used to grow khat in Yemen was 8,000 hectares.
- In 2000, it was 103,000 hectares.
- Studies show that Yemenis spend about 17% of their family income on khat.
- It is estimated that 70-80% of adult Yemenis under the age of 50 chew khat at least occasionally.
- The effects of khat, when chewed, are felt within 15 minutes. This is faster than amphetamines, which usually take about 30 minutes.
- These effects can last up to 24 hours, but will most often last between 90 minutes and 3 hours.
SIGNS OF ADDICTION
Khat is not as addictive as other drugs, but it is quite possible to become addicted. Although its use is generally limited to the African and Middle Eastern regions, and to immigrants from these areas, it is beginning to spread elsewhere.
Several signs may indicate khat consumption. The most obvious is constant chewing. Khat causes feelings of excitement and mild euphoria, with a tendency to be more talkative, and although they may have greater alertness, users may have trouble concentrating on anything. It also stimulates the libido and causes loss of appetite. Unusual hyperactivity, especially at regular times of the day, may be a sign of khat use.
Once the initial effects wear off, users may experience withdrawal symptoms, such as mild depression, irritability, lethargy, and slight muscle twitching. This is often followed by insomnia and extreme fatigue the next day, with decreased productivity at work. Signs of long-term addiction include weight loss, hemorrhoids, bronchitis and regular gastrointestinal distress. Other signs may include frequent dizziness and headaches.
One of the most obvious signs of khat consumption is tooth discoloration. Regular consumption of khat over an extended period of time leads to permanent darkening of the teeth to a greenish hue, as well as gum disease.
Khat is one of the least addictive drugs, but that doesn’t mean it can’t become an addiction. However, it is perfectly possible to treat khat addiction yourself, as the withdrawal symptoms are much less severe than those of more powerful stimulants such as amphetamines. Addictions remain occasional, but the body can still develop a chemical dependency on the drug. Cathine, one of the stimulants in khat, can be treated with medication to alleviate cravings and withdrawal symptoms, however there is no substitute for cathinone, the other stimulant in khat.
Unlike harder drugs, a trip to a medical facility to treat a khat addiction is completely unnecessary, as the body can break an addiction fairly quickly, without significant side effects and without disrupting daily life. As with tobacco addiction, stopping khat is essentially a matter of willpower.
That said, it may still be helpful to consult a doctor when trying to quit chewing khat. He or she may be able to provide advice or prescribe medication to ease withdrawal symptoms, but more importantly, khat can contribute to several other health problems that may require some vigilance. Because khat use is so widespread, especially in Yemeni and Somali communities, symptoms of conditions such as oral cancer and impaired liver function may not have been controlled.
Khat can also contribute to much more serious health problems. For example, high heart rate and blood pressure, which are some of the effects of khat, can lead to high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke. Oral cancer can also be a health risk from prolonged khat use, as can hemorrhoids, gastrointestinal problems, impotence, ulcers and bronchitis.
These serious medical problems resulting directly from khat consumption are quite rare, even among heavy users, but they are still a risk. For this reason, while it may be relatively easy to kick a khat addiction compared to slightly stronger drugs, it would still be prudent to treat, if possible, any physiological damage the drug has caused as a result of prolonged use.
As with any habitual drug, other therapies can also be beneficial. For example, chewing gum can replace the habit of chewing khat. Occupying the time usually spent using the drug with other activities can also help. Although the body ceases to be chemically dependent on khat fairly quickly after cessation, the psychological aspect of quitting an old habit can be a significant, though perfectly surmountable, obstacle.
Talk To Frank :www.talktofrank.com/drug/khat
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) :www.drugabuse.gov/publications/infofacts/khat
OMS (Organisation mondiale de la santé) :www.who.int/medicines/areas/quality_safety/4.4KhatCritReview.pdf