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Khat, pronounced “cot,” is a plant that grows in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The plant’s scientific name is Catha edulis, and Khat can also refer specifically to the leaves and shoots of the plant. Since the 13th century, it has been used as a recreational drug by indigenous people of the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa, and the Middle East. To this day, people chew fresh Khat to release a Stimulant effect. Khat is kept in the cheek and chewed intermittently to extract the juices and release more of its effects. Khat can also be brewed as a tea or made into a chewable paste. People with a Khat addiction prefer fresh leaves; within 48 hours of cutting the plant, it will start to lose potency. Khat can also be smoked or sprinkled onto food as powder.
Cathinone (Keto-Amphetamine) and Cathine (D-Norpseudoephedrine) are the primary Psychoactive ingredients in Khat. Both are chemical compounds with structural similarities to Amphetamine. In the United States, Cathinone is a Schedule I controlled substance since it has a high potential for abuse with no medical utility. Other Schedule I drugs include Heroin, Ecstasy, and LSD.
Cathine is a Schedule IV controlled substance, since it has medical benefits yet still carries a risk of dependence. Like Cathonine, Cathine belongs to the Amphetamine class of drugs and produces excitatory effects; Cathine is less potent than Cathonine, however. Other Schedule IV controlled substances include Xanax, Valium, Ambien, and Tramadol. Khat is illegal in the United States but is legal in parts of Europe, East Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula.
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Khat has been used for decades as a social tonic, with some of its users comparing it to coffee. In Ethiopia, men gather together to talk about life and chew on Khat leaves. In many social interactions, it takes the place of alcohol. It is also used to gain energy, stay awake at work, and experience euphoria. Khat users in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula defend the plant, saying it is part of their tradition. Its popularity stimulates the economy; Khat is a lucrative cash crop in Yemen and Somalia.
About 10 million people around the world chew Khat, and the growth of this plant generates hundreds of millions of dollars each year. The city of Awaday in Ethiopia is home to the world’s biggest market of Khat; over $80 million can change hands in one night alone, according to broadcast media company DW Akademie. The market operates 24 hours a day and provides employment to workers who cut, clean, package, transport, and sell the branches. Because Khat’s potency is reduced within 48 hours, there is a rush to get the plant to its customers. Much of the work is done overnight because the sun will burn the leaves.
The practice of consuming Khat is old, but tradition does not mean use is without consequence. People with a Khat addiction can suffer from a long list of ailments and may not realize that the plant holds many dangers to the mind and body. The plant has been emerging more often in American culture in recent years, causing officials to outlaw it. However, the laws are not stopping some people with a Khat addiction from using and spreading the drug.
In the United States, Khat addiction is prevalent among immigrants from Ethiopian, Somali, and Yemeni cultures. The National Drug Intelligence Center states that use of the plant is highest in cities such as Boston, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Nashville, and New York City. A US News report from February 2019 said that about 1,000 pounds of Khat was seized after smugglers attempted to disguise it as green tea. In December 2019, a Rochester woman was arrested after a traffic violation and was found to be chewing on Khat. In Minneapolis, police seized over 500 pounds of freeze-dried Khat. These 3 stories are a few of the many Khat cases appearing in recent years. Some common street names for Khat include:
Although some users compare Khat to coffee, it has more similarities with the drug Cocaine and other Amphetamines. Users feel increased alertness, energy, euphoria, increased talkativeness, decreased appetite, and excitement. Heart and breathing rates are increased, and body temperature and blood pressure are elevated. Appetite is reduced and fatigue is lessened, making Khat users rely on the drug to fuel them through work or improve their sociability. Short-term effects of the drug include an elevated heart rate, constipation, irritability, insomnia, euphoria, manic behavior, breathing difficulties, and increased motor activity.
Khat addiction develops when the user has a psychological dependence on the plant. A hallmark sign of addiction to Khat is psychological dependence, a state of adaptation to a drug which causes symptoms of withdrawal upon cessation or dose reduction. Other symptoms of Khat addiction include cravings for Khat, preoccupation with the drug, and giving up social or professional responsibilities to use Khat. Studies indicate that Khat can induce dependence similar to that which Amphetamine users experience.
Chronic Khat abuse leads to mental health impairment and behavioral changes. High doses of Khat combined with a lack of sleep can cause paranoid or grandiose delusions, violence, and schizophrenic psychosis. Hallucinations may also be present, caused by the high accumulation of dopamine in the brain. The long-term effects are potentially life-threatening and include anorexia, hypertension, gastric disorders, liver damage, and an increased risk for heart disease, heart attacks, and cancer of the mouth. Chewing Khat has destructive effects on oral health; the substance is commonly consumed with tobacco and sugary drinks to offset the bitter taste of the plant. Khat users present with lesions on the teeth, severe staining of the teeth, and sometimes gingival recession and bleeding.
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Withdrawing from Khat is very unpleasant and can be worsened depending on the frequency of previous use. According to a 2017 study, the most common Khat withdrawal symptoms are:
Withdrawal from Khat generally lasts between 24 and 48 hours. Withdrawal from Khat is not life-threatening. If someone has pre-existing medical issues, however, they should seek medical attention.
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The safest way to detox from an addictive substance is at a detox treatment center that can provide the knowledge and comfort each patient needs. If you or someone you know is struggling with a Khat addiction, there is help available. Contact a treatment provider to discuss treatment options. Khat may be an old tradition, but you can still turn over a new leaf.
Hayley Hudson is the Director of Content at Addiction Center. She earned a B.A. in Communications from the University of Central Florida and has 6 years of professional writing experience. A passion for writing led her to a career in journalism, and she worked as a news reporter for 3 years, focusing on stories in the healthcare and wellness industry. Knowledge in healthcare led to an interest in drug and alcohol abuse, and she realized how many people are touched by addiction.
Reviewed by Certified Addiction Professional
Theresa Parisi is a Certified Addiction Professional (CAP), Certified Behavioral Health Case Manager (CBHCM), and International Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ICADC) with over 12 years of experience in the addiction treatment field.
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