Khat (Catha edulis, family Celastraceae; Arabic: قات; Somali: Jaad; ; Ge'ez ጫት č̣āt), also known as qat, qaat, quat, gat, chat, chad, chaad and miraa, is a flowering plant native to tropical East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
Khat contains the alkaloid called cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant which causes excitement, loss of appetite, and euphoria. In 1980 the World Health Organization classified khat as a drug of abuse that can produce mild to moderate psychological dependence, and the plant has been targeted by anti-drug organizations like the DEA. It is a controlled/illegal substance in many countries.
The earliest documented description of khat dates back to the Kitab al-Saidana fi al-Tibb, an 11th century work on pharmacy and materia medica written by Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī, a Persian scientist and biologist. Unaware of its origins, al-Bīrūnī wrote that khat is:
In 1854, the Malay writer Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir noted that the custom of chewing Khat was prevalent in Al Hudaydah in Yemen: "I observed a new peculiarity in this city — everyone chewed leaves as goats chew the cud. There is a type of leaf, rather wide and about two fingers in length, which is widely sold, as people would consume these leaves just as they are; unlike betel leaves, which need certain condiments to go with them, these leaves were just stuffed fully into the mouth and munched. Thus when people gathered around, the remnants from these leaves would pile up in front of them. When they spat, their saliva was green. I then queried them on this matter: ‘What benefits are there to be gained from eating these leaves?’ To which they replied, ‘None whatsoever, it’s just another expense for us as we’ve grown accustomed to it’. Those who consume these leaves have to eat lots of ghee and honey, for they would fall ill otherwise. The leaves are known as Kad.
The khat plant is known by a variety of names, such as qat and ghat in Yemen, qaat and jaad in Somalia, chat in Ethiopia and miraa in Kenya and Tanzania. It is also known as Jimma in Oromiffa language. Khat has been grown for use as a stimulant for centuries in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. There, chewing khat predates the use of coffee and is used in a similar social context. Its fresh leaves and tops are chewed or, less frequently, dried and consumed as tea, in order to achieve a state of euphoria and stimulation; it also has anorectic side-effects. Its use is generally not limited by religion, though the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (along with its Eritrean counterpart) has forbidden Christians from using it due to its stimulating effects. Due to the availability of rapid, inexpensive air transportation, the drug has been reported in England, Wales, Rome, Amsterdam, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. The public has become more aware of this drug through media reports pertaining to the United Nations mission in Somalia, where khat use is widespread, and its role in the Persian Gulf.
Khat use has traditionally been confined to the regions where khat is grown, because only the fresh leaves have the desired stimulating effects. In recent years improved roads, off-road motor vehicles and air transport have increased the global distribution of this perishable commodity. Traditionally, khat has been used as a socializing drug, and this is still very much the case in Yemen where khat-chewing is predominantly, although not exclusively, a male habit. In other countries, khat is consumed largely by single individuals and at parties. It is mainly a recreational drug in the countries which grow khat, though it may also be used by farmers and laborers for reducing physical fatigue or hunger and by drivers and students for improving attention. Within the counter-culture segments of the Kenyan elite population, Khat (referred to as veve) is used to counter the effects of a hangover or binge drinking, similar to the use of the coca leaf in South America. In Yemen some women have their own saloons for the occasion, and participate in chewing Khat with their husbands on weekends. In many places where grown, Khat has become mainstream enough for many children to start chewing the plant before puberty.
Khat is so popular in Yemen that its cultivation consumes much of the country's agricultural resources. It is estimated that 40% of the country's water supply goes towards irrigating it, with production increasing by about 10% to 15% every year. Water consumption is so high that groundwater levels in the Sanaa basin are being diminished; because of this, government officials have proposed relocating large portions of the population of Sanaa to the coast of the Red Sea. One reason for cultivating khat in Yemen so widely is the high income it provides for farmers. Some studies done in 2001 estimated that the income from cultivating khat was about 2.5 million Yemeni rials per hectare, while it was only 0.57 million rials per hectare if fruits were cultivated. This is a strong reason farmers prefer to cultivate khat over coffee and fruits. It is estimated that between 1970 and 2000, the area on which khat was cultivated grew from 8,000 hectares to 103,000 hectares.
In Somalia, the Supreme Islamic Courts Council, which took control of much of the country in 2006, banned khat during Ramadan, sparking street protests in Kismayo. In November 2006, Kenya banned all flights to Somalia, citing security concerns, prompting protests by Kenyan khat growers. The Kenyan Member of Parliament from Ntonyiri, Meru North District stated that local land had been specialized in khat cultivation, that 20 tons worth $800,000 were shipped to Somalia daily and that a flight ban could devastate the local economy. With the victory of the Provisional Government backed by Ethiopian forces in the end of December 2006, khat has returned to the streets of Mogadishu, though Kenyan traders have noted demand has not yet returned to pre-ban levels.
The stimulant effect of the plant was originally attributed to "katin", cathine, a phenethylamine-type substance isolated from the plant. However, the attribution was disputed by reports showing the plant extracts from fresh leaves contained another substance more behaviorally active than cathine. In 1975, the related alkaloid cathinone was isolated, and its absolute configuration was established in 1978. Cathinone is not very stable and breaks down to produce cathine and norephedrine. These chemicals belong to the PPA (phenylpropanolamine) family, a subset of the phenethylamines related to amphetamines and the catecholamines epinephrine and norepinephrine.
Both of khat's major active ingredients -- cathine and cathinone -- are phenylalkylamines, meaning they are in the same class of chemicals as amphetamines. In fact, cathinone and cathine have a very similar molecular structure to amphetamine.
When khat leaves dry, the more potent chemical, cathinone, decomposes within 48 hours leaving behind the milder Schedule IV chemical, cathine. Thus, harvesters transport khat by packaging the leaves and stems in plastic bags or wrapping them in banana leaves to preserve their moisture and keep the cathinone potent. It is also common for them to sprinkle the plant with water frequently or use refrigeration during transportation.
When the khat leaves are chewed, cathine and cathinone are released and absorbed through the mucous membranes of the mouth and the lining of the stomach. The action of cathine and cathinone on the reuptake of epinephrine and norepinephrine has been demonstrated in lab animals, showing that one or both of these chemicals cause the body to recycle these neurotransmitters more slowly, resulting in the wakefulness and insomnia associated with khat use.
Receptors for serotonin show a high affinity for cathinone suggesting that this chemical is responsible for feelings of euphoria associated with chewing khat. In mice, cathinone produces the same types of nervous pacing or repetitive scratching behaviors associated with amphetamines. The effects of cathinone peak after 15 to 30 minutes with nearly 98% of the substance metabolized into norephedrine by the liver.
Cathine is somewhat less understood, being believed to act upon the adrenergic receptors causing the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine. It has a half-life of about 3 hours in humans. Because the receptor effect are similar to those of cocaine medication, treatment of the occasional addiction is similar to that of cocaine. The medication bromocriptine can reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms within 24 hours.
Researchers estimate that about 70-80% of Yemenis between 16 and 50 years old chew khat, at least on occasion, and it has been estimated that Yemenis spend about 14.6 million person-hours per day chewing khat. The local researcher Ali Al-Zubaidi has estimated that the amount of money spent on khat has increased from 14.6 billion rials in 1990 to 41.2 billion rials in 1995. Researchers have also estimated that families spend about 17% of their income on khat (the real number may be more.)
There are limited reports that Khat is now a controlled substance in Queensland.
Khat is not a controlled substance in the United Kingdom, and recent attempts to reclassify it were rejected. Because of this, and because of khat's short shelf life, the UK serves as a main gateway for khat being sent by air to North America.
Khat is used by members of the Somali and Yemeni community (mainly men). It is currently legal, although there are calls from some sections of the Somali community for it to be banned. In the UK, cathine and cathinone are Class C drugs. The plant Catha edulis is uncontrolled.
Over 700 pounds of khat was seized by Philadelphia police officers in September 2007. The khat was recovered after being shipped to Philadelphia in containers. KYW-TV reported that the seizure is the first of its kind in Pennsylvania, although in December 2004, 52 pounds of khat was seized by Pennsylvania State Police in Sugarloaf Township in Luzerne County with an Ethiopian immigrant who had been in the U.S. for 16 years. Because the drug is cheaper than cocaine, sources said it has an economic appeal.
On December 19, 2007, federal authorities seized more than 400 pounds of khat at the Salt Lake City airport, in Utah. Deputies arrested two men for attempting to import a combined 450 pounds from Ethiopia. Officials say the two tried to pass the khat off as various spices for personal use; if convicted, they could face up to 20 years.
On January 31, 2008, police in Fargo, North Dakota seized 600 pounds of khat at the Hector International Airport. The shipment of khat was allegedly to be transported for distribution in Minneapolis, Minnesota. To the south, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, police seized 106 pounds of khat on August 13, 2008; the drug was to be distributed in Sioux Falls.