What to Know About Khat Use

Khat for sale at market.
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Khat or qat is a drug found in the leaves of a wild, East African shrub called Catha edulis, which contains the central nervous system stimulant cathinone. The chewing of khat is tied to social and cultural traditions that date 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, its use has grown in recent years among women and younger people. For example, nearly 30% of adolescent girls and over 70% of adolescent boys chew khat in Eastern Ethiopia.

Cathinone is a Schedule I controlled drug, so khat is illegal in the United States and Canada, but not in some other countries. It is legal in countries including Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, and Kenya.

Also Known As: Some of the common names associated with khat include Qat, Kat, Chat, Miraa, and Quaadka.

Drug Class: Khat has a stimulant effect when chewed—similar to the leaves of the coca plant, which is used for making cocaine.

Common Side Effects: Side effects include increased respiration, elevated blood pressure, arrhythmias, and dilated pupils. Regular use can also lead to tooth decay, gum disease, ulcers, and constipation.

How to Recognize Khat

Khat leaves are often green or a green-brown. The leaves have a glossy appearance when fresh that turn a leathery yellow-brown as they dry. It can sometimes be mistaken for marijuana. The leaves of the khat plant are often packed together in a bundle and wrapped in banana leaves. The leaves are most often chewed fresh since 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. Users may become talkative, alert, elated, and experience euphoria. Some feel increased self-esteem, and others describe increased imagination and the ability to associate ideas.

Khat is usually chewed, often held in the cheek for several hours and chewed periodically. Chewing sessions will typically last 3–4 hours. Khat can also be dried and consumed as a tea, but it is most potent when fresh.

As khat chewing is an important social ritual among Somali, Yemeni, and Ethiopian cultures, it helps to maintain a sense of connection to the community and home among people who have migrated to other parts of the world. As a result, a small khat-chewing international drug trade has developed.

What the Experts Say

According to the World Health Organization, the effects of khat consumption are similar to strong coffee. Research published in 2011 suggested that khat has an effect on the gastro-intestinal, central nervous, cardiovascular, respiratory, endocrine, and genito-urinary systems.

In addition to the cultural reasons for its use, people use it to experience the effects of euphoria, increased energy, and appetite suppression.

Other Uses

Khat has no approved or evidence-based medical uses in the United States. In countries where its sale and use are legal, it is sometimes used to treat fatigue, headaches, colds, and depression.

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 problems may be the result of toxic pesticides, which users do not wash off prior to chewing because they believe washing the leaves will reduce their potency.

Mental health problems associated with khat use including psychosis symptoms are documented but not well understood. Khat use has also been associated with symptoms of depression, mood swings, and violent behavior, and it can lead to a relationship and social problems—especially when khat use takes men away from their families for extended periods, and when large amounts of money is spent on the drug.

Although khat is considered a relatively safe drug, deaths have been associated with its use, according to a study published in 2011.

Signs of Use

Signs that someone might be using khat include:

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

Myths and Common Questions

Khat use is illegal in the United States and media portrayals of the drug tend to exaggerate its effects. It is widely used by approximately 20 million people worldwide. It also has cultural significance in many of these countries, where it is often seen as a food rather than a drug, much the way that coffee is viewed in the United States.

That said, because it is a mild stimulant, people sometimes mistakenly believe that it does not have any serious side effects. In addition to some of the more severe short-term consequences including heart arrhythmias, it can also have longer-term effects including mouth and stomach problems.

It is also important to note that while occasional recreational use of khat is considered low-risk, there are legal consequences to its possession, sale, and use in countries where the drug is illegal.

Tolerance, Dependence, and Withdrawal

Chewing releases the drug slowly, so it doesn't produce the same immediate and intense high of addictive drugs such as cocaine and meth.

Khat chewing is traditionally an all-male social activity, but those women who do chew khat tend to do so alone and in secrecy and are at high risk of 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

It is not known whether khat is addictive. It is believed that the addiction potential is relatively low, creating a physical addiction similar to that of caffeine. Further research is needed to determine its potential for addiction.

Withdrawal

Withdrawal symptoms tend to be relatively mild and can include:

  • Mood changes
  • Cravings for the drug
  • Irritability
  • Depression

The severity of these symptoms can range from very mild to more severe depending on the frequency, amount, and duration of use.

How to Get Help

If you or someone you know has a problem with khat use, effective treatments are available. Because khat dependence and withdrawal symptoms are usually mild, people can often quit on their own using self-help strategies.

Behavioral treatments including cognitive-behavioral therapy that address multiple aspects of the individual's life can be effective in reducing or eliminating khat use.

Talk to your doctor if you feel that you need help with your khat use. You can also call SAMHSA's toll-free national hotline at 1-800-662-4357, or use their online treatment locator to find mental health services in your area. 

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Article Sources

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