What to Know About Khat Use

Khat for sale at market.
Ariadne Van Zandbergen / Getty Images

Khat (or qat) is a drug found in the leaves of a wild, East African shrub called Catha edulis. The plan contains a central nervous system stimulant called cathinone. Khat chewing is tied to social and cultural traditions dating back thousands of years, mostly in North-Eastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, where the plant is widely cultivated.

While it has traditionally been a custom associated with older Muslim men, khat's use has expanded to include women and younger people. In Eastern Ethiopia, nearly 30% of adolescent girls and over 70% of adolescent boys chew khat.

Cathinone is a Schedule I controlled drug. Khat is illegal in the United States and Canada, but is legal in many other parts of the world, including Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, and Kenya.

Also Known As: Qat, Kat, Chat, Miraa, and Quaadka

Drug Class: Stimulant (khat has a stimulant effect when chewed that is similar to the leaves of the coca plant, which is used for making cocaine)

Common Side Effects: Increased respiration, elevated blood pressure, heart arrhythmias, and dilated pupils; regular use can cause tooth decay, gum disease, ulcers, and constipation

How to Recognize Khat

Khat leaves are usually green or green-brown. When fresh, the leaves have a glossy appearance. As they dry, they turn leathery yellow-brown. Given its appearance, khat is sometimes mistaken for marijuana. The leaves of the khat plant are often packed together in a bundle and wrapped in banana leaves.

People who use khat typically chew fresh leaves, because the active components of the plant break down quickly as they dry out. Dried leaves are sometimes used as a tea, although the effects are less potent. 

What Does Khat Do?

Khat's effects are similar to those of other stimulants, such as caffeine. People who use khat may become talkative, alert, elated, and experience euphoria. Some people report feeling increased self-esteem. Others describe increased imagination and ideas.

Khat is usually chewed, with people typically holding the chewed leaves in their cheek for several hours, chewing periodically. Chewing sessions typically last 3 to 4 hours.

Khat chewing is an important social ritual among Somali, Yemeni, and Ethiopian cultures.

When people from these countries migrate to other parts of the world, they often use the social act of chewing khat to maintain a sense of connection to their community. The practice has lead to the development of an international drug trade for khat.

What the Experts Say

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the effects of khat consumption are similar to those of strong coffee. Research published in 2011 suggested the effects of khat are seen in the central nervous, cardiovascular, respiratory, endocrine, gastrointestinal, and genitourinary systems.

Other Uses

Khat has no approved or evidence-based medical uses in the United States. In countries where its sale and use are legal, khat is sometimes used to treat fatigue, headaches, colds, and depression. People also use khat to experience the effects of euphoria, increased energy, and appetite suppression.

Common Side Effects

Although khat is a relatively low-risk drug, it's associated with an increased risk for a variety of medical complications including dental disease, weight loss, constipation, hemorrhoids, impotence, blurred vision, dizziness, and headaches.

It's unclear whether the health risks associated with khat use are directly related to the drug cathinone, the consumption of caffeinated drinks that intensify the high, or if they're partially related to inhalation of second-hand smoke in poorly ventilated chewing houses.

Some of these health problems may be the result of toxic pesticides. Many people who use khat do not wash the leaves prior to chewing, as they believe that washing the leaves will reduce the drug's potency.

Mental health conditions associated with khat use, including psychosis, have been documented but are not well understood. Khat use has also been associated with symptoms of depression, mood swings, and violent behavior.

Research has indicated that khat use can cause relationship and social difficulties, particularly when its use takes men away from their families for extended periods, and when a large amount of money is spent on the drug.

Over the last few decades, a small number of deaths have been identified by researchers as being directly or indirectly associated with the use of khat.

Signs of Use

If you are concerned that a loved one is using khat, there are some behavior and physical signs and symptoms you can look for. Signs that someone is using khat can include:

  • Irritability
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • High blood pressure
  • Excitability or hyperactivity
  • Depressed mood
  • Lack of appetite
  • Weight loss

Myths & Common Questions

Khat is widely used by approximately 20 million people worldwide. It has cultural significance in many countries. Some have argued that media portrayals of the drug tend to exaggerate its effects.

Khat is often seen as a food rather than a drug (much the way that coffee is viewed in the United States). Since it is only a mild stimulant, people sometimes mistakenly believe that khat does not have any serious side effects.

In addition to some of the more severe short-term consequences such as heart arrhythmias, khat can also have longer-term health effects, including mouth and stomach disorders.

Occasional recreational use of khat is still considered to be low-risk, but there are legal consequences to its possession, sale, and use in countries where it is banned.

Khat is illegal in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, as well as most of Europe and Africa.

Tolerance, Dependence, and Withdrawal

Chewing khat releases the drug slowly. It does not produce the immediate and intense high of addictive drugs such as cocaine and meth.

Khat chewing is traditionally an all-male social activity. Women who chew khat tend to do so alone and in secrecy, putting them at increased risk for dependence.

How Long Does Khat Stay in Your System?

Once consumed, the effects of khat peak after approximately 15 to 30 minutes. The drug has a half-life of approximately three hours. 

Addiction

Khat might be an addictive drug. The substance is believed to create a physical addiction similar to that of caffeine. However, it is hard to differentiate dependence from addiction to the psychoactive compounds in khat, as there is a lack of criteria to make such a determination.

Research has found that khat use is often associated with the use of other addictive substances. For example, a 2011 study of Yemeni subjects living in the UK found an association between nicotine use and khat chewing. More research is needed to determine the addictive potential of khat.

Withdrawal

The severity of withdrawal symptoms ranges from mild to severe, depending on the frequency, amount, and duration of the person's khat use. The symptoms people experience when withdrawing from khat tend to be relatively mild. The possible symptoms of khat withdrawal include:

How to Get Help

The type of help you will need (and how much help you need) if you want to stop using khat will depend on how long you have been using, how much of the drug you use, and the severity of the symptoms you have related to using and stopping khat.

People who use khat recreationally might be able to stop taking the drug with a combination of guidance from their doctor, a social support network, and self-help strategies. However, people who have been using khat for a long time (chronic use), or who use large amounts of the drug might need more resources and help to quit.

If you or a loved one wants to stop using khat, start by talking to a trusted doctor or mental health care professional. They can help you find the right type of treatment and support. Behavioral treatments, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, can be effective for people who want to stop using substances.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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