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What is the Khat Drug?

Khat (pronounced “cot”) is a flowering evergreen shrub native to East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It contains cathinone, which is an alkaloid that acts as a stimulant. It was relatively unheard of in the Western Hemisphere for quite a long time because Khat loses some of its potency within 48 hours of being picked. This caused issues with distribution, because there was no good way to get it out of the source countries in a timely fashion.

In the last few years, however, transportation options have expanded and improved, allowing shippers the ability to ship it to countries such as the United States. Suppliers make sure to package the drug carefully so as to keep it moist, meaning it loses very little potency during the shipping process.

Khat is also known by several other “street” names:

  • Abyssinian Tea
  • African Salad
  • Bushman’s Tea
  • Chat
  • Gat
  • Graba
  • Kat
  • Miraa
  • Oat
  • Qat
  • Somali Tea
  • Tohai
  • Tschat

It is most commonly chewed and then stored in the cheek (like tobacco) to release the effects of the drug, although it can also be brewed like a tea, smoked or sprinkled on food. The dried leaves have less potency than fresh leaves which is why most users choose to chew it over any other method of delivery. The use of Khat has been a tradition in Somalia, Yemen and Ethiopia for centuries. Residents of east Africa were known to chew the leaves in ancient times to alleviate fatigue, keep alert and reduce feelings of hunger. Cafes, known as mafrishes, were established for those that would like to stop in on their way to work or school or to engage in a social gathering – very similar to meeting friends at a coffee shop as a way to pass the time.

When East African and Middle Eastern immigrants settled in Europe and the United States, they brought the use of Khat with them. While Europe chose for a very long time (up until recently) to look the other way on the use of Khat, users in the United States found themselves facing problems with the DEA. The DEA considers Khat to be on the same level as cocaine and it is viewed as a controlled and illegal substance. This causes friction between the DEA and users who view the use of Khat as being on the same level as drinking a cup of coffee.

Effects of Khat

Despite many user’s adamant statements that the Khat drug is no more harmful than coffee, many experts do believe that certain acts of violence in Somalia, Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan can be directly linked to the side effects of using Khat. One of the effects of the drug is a heightened sense of invincibility that they believe causes users to act out aggressively. There have been cases of users developing a form of hyperactive mania from continuous use. Some have also been known to develop aggression or short-lived psychotic episodes when using the drug in high doses.

The effects of Khat will typically last around four hours, depending on the amount of leaves consumed and potency of the drug at the time of consumption. The active ingredients are similar to the structure you would find in amphetamines and effect the brain in a similar fashion. The two alkaloids in Khat increase the levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, giving the user an almost immediate reaction. Optimism, euphoria and increased energy are some of the desired effects from the initial high.

Short Term Effects of Khat

Immediate effects of Khat can include:

  • Euphoria
  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased alertness
  • Increased energy
  • Cheerfulness
  • Reduction in boredom
  • Increased sociability
  • Fatigue is alleviated
  • Attention span is decreased
  • Motor activity is increased

Because of these effects, it is very easy for users to develop a psychological dependency on the drug. The increase in confidence, friendliness and feeling of contentment makes users feel successful, outgoing and capable of anything. Some users have even been known to experience hallucinations, delusions of grandeur or paranoia when taking the drug. There are also several negative side effects associated with the use of Khat.

Negative effects include:

  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Physical exhaustion
  • Trouble breathing
  • Constipation
  • Increased heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Manic behavior
  • Anorexia
  • Gastric disorders
  • Depression
  • High risk of cancer of the mouth
  • Liver damage
  • Other cardiac complications

After the initial high of the first hour or two, many people begin to experience:

  • Tension
  • Depression
  • Sluggishness
  • Emotional instability
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Lack of concentration
  • Restlessness

Long Term Effects

There are several things to be aware of when it comes to the long-term effects of Khat. While some of the effects may feel good in the beginning, those good feelings typically give way to effects that are the complete opposite of what is desired. Instead of feeling energetic, the user will feel groggy. Instead of feeling outgoing, they will become depressed or introverted.

Here is a long-term breakdown of the effects of Khat on the body:

Mind. Long term effects of Khat on the brain can include aggression or violence towards yourself or others, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, restlessness, paranoia, manic behavior, insomnia or depression. People who have engaged in long-term Khat use may also have lowered inhibitions related to the “feel good” or outgoing effects of the drug, which can lead to making decisions that aren’t in their best interest such as having unprotected sex with an unfamiliar partner.

Heart. Being a stimulant, Khat can cause cardiovascular issues ranging from minor to severe depending on the person, length of use and strength of the drug. Smaller amounts may give the feeling of being heavily caffeinated. Larger doses may cause severely increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, heart attack or stroke.

Stomach. Like any substance, Khat can negatively affect the stomach and intestines. Stomach pain, nausea and vomiting are some of the most commonly reported side effects. Because it causes a decrease in appetite, Khat can also cause anorexia, severe weight loss and reduced urine output.

Teeth. Much like chewing tobacco, the most common way to ingest the drug is to chew it. This can lead to staining or discoloration of teeth or gums, cavities, gum disease, oral cancer and even cracks in the teeth.

Lungs. Another form of ingesting the drug is to smoke it (like hand rolled cigarettes or marijuana). This can lead to issues with the lungs, such as pneumonia, emphysema or lung cancer.

Another very serious, if uncommon, side effect of Khat can that can occur with heavy use over an extended period of time is Khat-induced psychosis. While this is not the most common long-term effect, a study in Somalia showed that in households that used Khat on a regular basis, 8.4 percent of males over the age of 12 experienced some form of mental health disorder. It’s use has also been linked to what is known as Khat-induced hepatitis, or liver damage and failure.

If you know someone who is struggling with an addiction to Khat, it is important that they seek out treatment to help them overcome their addiction as soon as possible. Once the long-term physical or mental damage occurs from the drug it will be too late. There are many short and long-term rehabilitation options available to help come up with the treatment plan that is best suited to you or your loved one.

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