Khat: Coffee-like Stimulant or Dangerous Drug?

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Native to southern Arabia and East Africa is the flowering Catha edulis shrub, or khat plant. Khat (rhymes with "pot") is a mind-altering drug derived from the shrub’s leaves.

Using khat in the U.S. is a guilty pleasure. The plant’s main psychoactive chemical, cathinone, is classified as a Schedule I drug – a controlled substance with no recognized therapeutic purpose – and its use is considered illegal.

Approximately 10 million people worldwide enjoy the effects of khat. Users chew the shrub’s leaves and then hold the pulp in their cheek, chewing intermittently until all the juices are extracted. The plant has a bitter taste that people often dilute with water or sweet drinks. Khat leaves can also be dried and used to make tea or a chewable paste.

The Khat Experience

When ingested, khat – also called qat, Qaad, kat, chat and Arabian tea – triggers states of euphoria, heightened alertness, increased energy and hyperactivity. The effects begin to fade after one and a half to three hours, but may continue up to 24 hours. When the high wears off, people sometimes experience irritability, appetite loss, problems sleeping or concentrating.

Along with the psychological changes, users are also subject to the physical effects of ingesting a stimulant such an increase in blood pressure, faster heart rate and dilated pupils.

Long-term heavy use of khat is associated with several undesirable physical conditions including periodontal disease and tooth decay, ulcers, constipation, stomach inflammation and gastric tumors. There are also reports of irregular heartbeats, poor circulation and heart attack.

Khat and the Mind-Body

The psychoactive elements in khat, cathinone and cathine, are amphetamine-like, although their stimulating effects are less potent. Khat causes the release of norepinephrine, a stress hormone and neurotransmitter, and triggers an increase in dopamine – our neurotransmitter related to feelings of pleasure and reward.

There is no evidence that chewing khat causes mental illness, although its use may exacerbate symptoms in people with mental health diagnoses. Chronic abuse of this drug can lead to psychological dependence. Behavioral changes associated with heavy use include manic behavior, grandiose and paranoid delusions, suicidal ideation and violence. Whether khat is a causative factor for these behaviors has never been determined.

It is also unclear if a khat habit leads to addiction, tolerance or physical dependency, although some long-term users complain of nightmares, depressed moods and trembling after discontinuing use.

Khat Use and Controversy

The use of khat in the U.S., Canada and Europe is most prevalent among immigrant populations from Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen, where its use has been culturally accepted for centuries. Many traditional imbibers of khat object to it being considered a controlled substance.

"It is a very touchy subject," said Abdulaziz Kamus, president, African Resource Center, Washington, D.C. "Some people see it like a drug; some people see it like coffee. You have to understand our background and understand the significance of it in our community."

However, some experts fear the use of khat is linked to the violence in Somalia and that the sale of khat is being used to fund terrorist groups there. With all the behavioral and political implications involved, it is unlikely khat leaves will ever be stocked next to coffee and tea bags on our grocery store shelves.

Sources: Drug Abuse; Live Science

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