Khat

Main type

Khat is a plant that contains two stimulant chemicals, cathine and cathinone, that are released when the plant is chewed. It is native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Chewing khat is a tradition that goes back many thousands of years as a social activity in the region to encourage conversation and decision making, indeed khat consumption can be traced all the way back as far as the ancient Egyptians. Whilst the World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies it as an addictive drug, it is not considered seriously addictive, and less so than alcohol or tobacco. Khat is mostly chewed, but it can also be dried out and consumed as tea.

Nevertheless, it is still illegal in many countries, particularly in Europe and North America, as a result of the amphetamine-like stimulants that the plant contains. The United Kingdom is one of the few European countries where it is legal and unregulated, permitting both production and consumption of the drug.

The plant itself takes about 8 years to grow fully, eventually reaching between 4.5 and 10 feet tall. Khat was traditionally only consumed in the areas in which it was grown, due to it only having the desired effect when fresh. However, with the advent of improved global distribution channels, khat consumption has been recorded all over the world. It is thought to be used on a daily basis by an estimated 10 million people globally.

Its effects can be compared to that of a particularly strong coffee, causing mild euphoria and excitement, accompanied by an increased chattiness. The stimulant effects become apparent more quickly than even those of amphetamines, with similar hyperactive behaviours induced.

Khat is not without its health risks, and as an addictive drug is known to elicit withdrawal symptoms in users after prolonged use including mild depression, lethargy and loss of appetite. Long term use can damage the liver, darken the teeth permanently, increase the risk of ulcers and decrease sex drive.

Other Types

Khat has relatively few street names compared to other drugs, possibly due to it not being particularly popular in the developed world, with it having a somewhat low profile and benign reputation. However in the areas in which it is grown, khat has a number of separate terms that appear to have more to do with regional pronunciation than slang. Some of these terms include “catha”, “chaat”, “gat”, “kat”, “qat”, “qut”, “tschaad”, “tohai”, “tohat” and “tschut”. It can also be known as “Abyssinian tea”, “Kus es Salahin” or “African salad”. Its latin name is “Catha edulis”.

Due to its status as a low profile drug, yet still carrying harsh penalties for trafficking in many countries, it has yet to make a real impact on Western culture or parlance. Whilst amounts of illegally smuggled khat are seized by authorities in many countries every year, much of this appears to be intended for expatriate communities.

Major Effects

The effects of khat have been described as being similar to those of a particularly strong coffee. The main effects include increased alertness, followed by a feeling of calm after prolonged chewing. There is also an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, accompanied by mild euphoria and hyperactivity, not dissimilar to that experienced on amphetamine. Users also experience a loss of appetite, along with diluted pupils. These effects can potentially last for up to 24 hours, but more often than not will subside after anything between 90 minutes and 3 hours.

Khat is an addictive drug, and like any addictive drug is also associated with some negative effects, particularly after prolonged use. Withdrawal symptoms can include mild depression, irritability, lethargy and involuntary muscle twitching, as well as increasing aggressive tendencies and anxiety. Users may also experience nightmares, insomnia and disorientation, sometimes several days after the khat was actually chewed.

Longer term risks include liver damage, permanent tooth discolouration and an increased likelihood of ulcers. Whilst khat can increase the libido for a short time after the plant is chewed, prolonged use can cause impotence. In more serious cases of long term abuse, addicts can occasionally suffer from hallucinations. Since khat increases the heart rate and blood pressure, users are far more susceptible to heart attacks, as well as oral cancer from chewing the drug. It is also known to cause constipation.

There is no scientifically established link between khat consumption and mental illness, although it is widely thought that it can worsen symptoms in those already susceptible to psychological disorders.

Production countries

Khat naturally occurs exclusively in two areas of the world, which happen to be in very close geographical proximity: the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The Horn of Africa is comprised of Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia, whilst the Arabian Peninsula is just across the Red Sea, where khat cultivation and consumption is mostly limited to Yemen. It is also consumed in neighbouring countries including Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, although it is in fact illegal in Eritrea. It could also be potentially cultivated on a small scale in countries such as the United Kingdom where the drug is not a regulated substance. However the climate would be very unsuitable, making the cultivation of khat with intent to supply it as a drug largely untenable.

Khat is an important part of the national culture and identity in Yemen, where chewing khat is a social activity, similar in many ways to how westerners treat coffee. Its effects in making users of it more alert and chatty make it ideal in these cultures for encouraging conversation, and khat is heavily ingrained as part of Yemeni business culture, although only amongst Yemenis. It is mostly chewed by men, although women are free to do so too either with the men at weekends or in their own saloons.

Much of Yemen’s agricultural resources go towards cultivating khat, indeed it is thought that irrigating the crops accounts for roughly 40% of the Yemeni water supply. This might cause problems in the future, particularly with the continued rapid growth of the amount cultivated. The land used to grow khat in Yemen increased by more than 12 times over between 1970 and 2000, and shows no sign of abating. This is primarily because it is such a lucrative crop.

Khat naturally occurs exclusively in two areas of the world, which happen to be in very close geographical proximity: the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The Horn of Africa is comprised of Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia, whilst the Arabian Peninsula is just across the Red Sea, where khat cultivation and consumption is mostly limited to Yemen. It is also consumed in neighbouring countries including Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, although it is in fact illegal in Eritrea. It could also be potentially cultivated on a small scale in countries such as the United Kingdom where the drug is not a regulated substance. However the climate would be very unsuitable, making the cultivation of khat with intent to supply it as a drug largely untenable.

Khat is an important part of the national culture and identity in Yemen, where chewing khat is a social activity, similar in many ways to how westerners treat coffee. Its effects in making users of it more alert and chatty make it ideal in these cultures for encouraging conversation, and khat is heavily ingrained as part of Yemeni business culture, although only amongst Yemenis. It is mostly chewed by men, although women are free to do so too either with the men at weekends or in their own saloons.

Much of Yemen’s agricultural resources go towards cultivating khat, indeed it is thought that irrigating the crops accounts for roughly 40% of the Yemeni water supply. This might cause problems in the future, particularly with the continued rapid growth of the amount cultivated. The land used to grow khat in Yemen increased by more than 12 times over between 1970 and 2000, and shows no sign of abating. This is primarily because it is such a lucrative crop.

Whilst most khat is consumed in the areas in which it is grown, it has been known to be exported to other countries, mostly for use in expatriate communities. This has only become possible with the advent of improved infrastructure and transport links, as khat has no stimulant effect unless it is consumed fresh. It is however illegal in most countries, and whilst it is not currently considered a priority for drug enforcement agencies, in recent years there has been an increase in the amounts seized. Police in Iceland for example intercepted their first ever khat shipment in August 2010. Their second came only a few months later.

As a cultural tradition stemming from the areas of khat cultivation, it has yet to have much impact elsewhere outside of immigrant populations. This might be due to cultural differences, but is also possibly as 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, particularly across Europe and North America, despite their illegality. Another aspect might be the side effects, notably impotence and permanent discolouration of the teeth, which for many Europeans and North Americans might outweigh the potential benefits of using khat on a long term basis, especially when more potent alternatives are easily obtainable. Some European countries such as the Netherlands are mulling over legalisation of khat, whilst the USA classifies it as a Schedule I substance.

Whilst most khat is consumed in the areas in which it is grown, it has been known to be exported to other countries, mostly for use in expatriate communities. This has only become possible with the advent of improved infrastructure and transport links, as khat has no stimulant effect unless it is consumed fresh. It is however illegal in most countries, and whilst it is not currently considered a priority for drug enforcement agencies, in recent years there has been an increase in the amounts seized. Police in Iceland for example intercepted their first ever khat shipment in August 2010. Their second came only a few months later.

As a cultural tradition stemming from the areas of khat cultivation, it has yet to have much impact elsewhere outside of immigrant populations. This might be due to cultural differences, but is also possibly as 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, particularly across Europe and North America, despite their illegality. Another aspect might be the side effects, notably impotence and permanent discolouration of the teeth, which for many Europeans and North Americans might outweigh the potential benefits of using khat on a long term basis, especially when more potent alternatives are easily obtainable. Some European countries such as the Netherlands are mulling over legalisation of khat, whilst the USA classifies it as a Schedule I substance.

Facts and stats

FACTS

  • It is primarily grown in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula, where the chewing of khat is a cultural tradition going back thousands of years.
  • It is considered one of the least addictive drugs available, less addictive than tobacco, alcohol, solvents or anabolic steroids.
  • However, regular users can still develop dependency.
  • Khat contains two stimulant chemicals, cathinone and cathine. The way in which these chemicals behave is still not entirely understood.
  • It takes 7-8 years for a Khat plant to grow fully, but its leaves, which is the part that is chewed or smoked, can be harvested several times a year.
  • It is important to keep khat leaves fresh in order to derive any stimulant effect from them. Upon drying out the more potent chemical, known as cathinone, decomposes, leaving behind cathine, the milder chemical.
  • In Yemen, khat is predominantly smoked by men, however it is also sometimes smoked by women.
  • It is a social drug, and highly significant culturally in the areas in which it is grown. Local people will often gather to chew khat together for an afternoon and enjoy its stimulant effects, which include heightened alertness and chattiness.
  • Khat has yet to become noticeably popular outside of the areas where it is cultivated except for within immigrant communities abroad. Due to its perishability and illegality in most countries, regular supply can be difficult.
  • It is completely legal in the United Kingdom, contrary to in most other European countries, as well as Canada and the United States, where it is not.
  • Khat is most often chewed, however it can be dried out and consumed in tea.
  • The exact origin of khat is uncertain, with some speculating that it may have first been grown in Ethiopia.
  • Khat itself should not technically be illegal, however the cathine and cathinone are.

STATS

  • It is estimated that 10 million people worldwide use khat on a day to day basis.
  • In Yemen, 82% of men are reported to have tried khat, while 43% of women report to have tried it.
  • In a survey of immigrant Somalis in London carried out in 1997, 76% reported using khat more in the UK than they did in Somalia.
  • In response to a 2005 WHO questionnaire sent to 67 countries, only 9 responded that khat abuse was present in their country.
  • Of these 9, only Kenya claimed to have a high prevalence of khat abuse, estimating khat usage at 20%.
  • In 1970, the area of land used to cultivate khat in Yemen was 8,000 hectares.
  • In 2000, it was 103,000 hectares.
  • Studies suggest 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 are noticeable within 15 minutes of chewing. This is faster than amphetamines, which generally take about 30 minutes.
  • These effects can potentially last for up to 24 hours, but more often than not will last for between 90 minutes and 3 hours.

Addiction Signs

Khat is not all that addictive when compared to other drugs, however it is still quite possible to become develop a dependency to it. Whilst its use is generally limited to regions of Africa and the Middle East, and immigrants originating from those regions, it is becoming more prevalent elsewhere.

There are a number of signs that could potentially indicate khat abuse. The most obvious is persistent chewing. Khat induces feelings of excitement and mild euphoria, with an increased loquaciousness, and whilst alertness may be increased, users may find it difficult to concentrate on any one particular thing. It also increases libido, and suppresses the user’s appetite. Uncharacteristic hyperactivity, particularly at regular times of the day, could potentially be indicative of khat use.

After the initial effects wear off, users can experience withdrawal symptoms including mild depression, irritability, lethargy and slight muscle twitches. This is often followed by insomnia and extreme tiredness the following day, with decreased work productivity. Long term signs of addiction include weight loss, haemorrhoids, bronchitis and regular gastro-intestinal disorders. Other signs might be frequent complaints of dizziness and headaches.

One of the most obvious signs of khat abuse is discolouration of the teeth. Regular khat use over a long term period results in the teeth permanently darkening to a greenish tinge, as well as gum disease.

Treatments

Khat is one of the less addictive drugs available, but that does not mean that a dependency cannot still be formed. It is however entirely possible to self-treat a khat addiction, as the withdrawal symptoms are not nearly as severe as those of more potent stimulants such as amphetamines. Addiction tends to be occasional, but the body can still develop a chemical dependency on the drug. Cathine, one of the stimulants found in khat, can be treated with medication to reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms, however there are no such substitutes for cathinone, the other stimulant found in khat.

Unlike more serious drugs, a residential stay in a medical facility to deal with khat addiction is wholly unnecessary, as the body can recover from addiction within a relatively short space of time, and without drastic side effects or disruption to everyday life. As with addiction to tobacco, cessation of a khat habit is largely down to willpower.

That being the case, it may still be advantageous to consult a doctor when attempting to give up chewing khat. Advice may be offered or medication prescribed to ease the symptoms of withdrawal, but more importantly, khat can contribute to an array of other health problems that may need attention. Given the prevalence of khat consumption primarily in the Yemeni and Somali communities, symptoms of afflictions such as oral cancer and decreased liver function may have gone unchecked.

Khat can also contribute to rather more serious health problems. For instance the elevated heart rate and blood pressure that comprises some of the effects of khat can ultimately lead potentially to hypertension, heart attacks and strokes. Oral cancer can also constitute a possible health risk resulting from sustained khat abuse, as well as haemorrhoids, gastro-intestinal problems, impotence, ulcers and bronchitis.

Such serious medical problems as a direct result of khat consumption tend to be uncommon even amongst heavy users, however they are risks all the same. To that end, whilst recovery from khat addiction may be a relatively sedate undertaking when compared to recovery from somewhat more potent drugs, it would be prudent nevertheless to deal where possible with the possible physiological damage that the drug has caused over sustained use and abuse.

As with any habitual drug, other therapies might also be beneficial in aiding recovery. For instance, chewing gum might be a comparable replacement for the habit of chewing khat. Occupying time spent normally using the drug with other activities can also potentially help. Whilst the body will cease to be chemically dependent on khat within a short while of giving up, the psychological aspect of breaking a habit that has been formed over a long period of time might be a significant barrier, albeit an entirely surmountable one.