Questions and Answers
National Drug Intelligence Center
a component of the
U.S. Department of Justice.
Archived on: January 1, 2011 . This document may contain dated information. It remains available to provide access to historical materials.
What is khat?
Khat (Catha edulis) is a flowering shrub native to East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The term khat refers to the leaves and young shoots of Catha edulis. The plant has been widely used since the thirteenth century as a recreational drug by the indigenous people of East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Middle East. Individuals chew khat leaves because of their stimulant and euphoric effects, which are similar to, but less intense than, those resulting from the abuse of cocaine or methamphetamine.
What does khat look like?
When fresh, khat leaves are glossy and crimson-brown in color, resembling withered basil. Khat leaves typically begin to deteriorate 48 hours after being harvested from the shrub on which they grow. Deteriorating khat leaves are leathery and turn yellow-green.
How is khat used?
Fresh khat typically is chewed and then retained in the cheek and chewed intermittently until the juices are extracted. Dried khat can be brewed into tea or made into a chewable paste. Less common methods of administering khat are smoking or sprinkling on food. Immediate effects of khat use include increased heart and breathing rates, elevated body temperature and blood pressure, and increased alertness, excitement, energy, and talkativeness. The effects of khat usually last between 90 minutes and 3 hours. After-effects of khat use include lack of concentration, numbness, and insomnia.
Who uses khat
The use of khat is accepted within Somali, Ethiopian, and Yemeni cultures; in the United States, khat use is most prevalent among immigrants from those countries. Abuse levels are highest in cities with sizable immigrant populations from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Yemen, such as Boston, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Nashville, New York City, and Washington, D.C.
Street Terms for Khat
What are the risks?
Khat abuse causes psychological dependence, and chronic abuse can lead to behavioral changes and mental health impairment. Clinical symptoms include manic behavior with grandiose delusions, violence, suicidal depression, and schizophreniform psychosis characterized by paranoid delusions. Chronic abuse can also produce physical exhaustion, anorexia, periodontal disease, and gastrointestinal illness.
Is khat illegal?
There is no licit use for khat in the United States. Khat contains two central nervous system stimulants: cathinone–a Schedule I drug 1 under the Federal Controlled Substances Act–and cathine–a Schedule IV drug. 2 Cathinone is the principal active stimulant; its levels are highest in fresh khat. Once the plant is harvested, cathinone levels begin to decline; cooling the cut plant material reduces the rate of decline. In dried or dehydrated khat, also known as Graba, cathinone may be detected for many months or even years. Cathine, which is about 10 times less potent than cathinone, remains stable in khat after the plant has been harvested. Khat samples in which any level of cathinone is found by chemical analysis are treated as Schedule I plant material. Khat samples in which only cathine is detectable by chemical analysis are treated as Schedule IV plant material.
1. Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) are classified as having a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision.
2. Schedule IV drugs under the CSA are classified as having a low potential for abuse relative to the drugs or other substances in Schedule III, a currently accepted medical use in the United States, and abuse of the drug may lead to limited physical dependence or psychological dependence relative to the drugs or other substances in Schedule III.
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Khat Fast Facts Questions and Answers National Drug Intelligence Center a component of the U.S. Department of Justice. Archived on: January 1, 2011 . This document may contain dated
Khat – is it more coffee or cocaine?
In the heart of the Ethiopian community here, a group of friends gathered after work in an office to chew on dried khat leaves before going home to their wives and children. Sweet tea and sodas stood on a circular wooden table between green mounds of the plant, a mild narcotic grown in the Horn of Africa.
As the sky grew darker the conversation became increasingly heated, flipping from religion to jobs to local politics. Suddenly, one of the men paused and turned in his chair. “See, it is the green leaf,” he said, explaining the unusually animated discussion as he pinched a few more leaves together and tossed them into his mouth.
For centuries the “flower of paradise” has been used legally in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as a stimulant and social tonic.
But in the United States khat is illegal, and an increased demand for the plant in cities such as Washington and San Diego is leading to stepped up law enforcement efforts and escalating clashes between narcotics officers and immigrants who defend their use of khat as a time-honored tradition.
In the last few years, San Diego, which has a large Somali population, has seen an almost eight-fold increase in khat seizures. Nationally, the amount of khat seized annually at the country’s ports of entry has grown from 14 metric tons to 55 in about the last decade.
Most recently, California joined 27 other states and the federal government in banning the most potent substance in khat, and the District of Columbia is proposing to do the same.
“It is a very touchy subject. Some people see it like a drug; some people see it like coffee,” said Abdulaziz Kamus, president of the African Resource Center in Washington, D.C. “You have to understand our background and understand the significance of it in our community.”
Increased immigration from countries such as Ethiopia, Yemen and Somalia has fueled the demand in this country and led to a cultural conflict.
“We grew up this way, you can’t just cut it off,” said a 35-year-old Ethiopian medical technician between mouthfuls of khat as he sat with his friends in the office.
In the Horn of Africa and parts of the Middle East, khat is a regular part of life, often consumed at social gatherings or in the morning before work and by students studying for exams. Users chew the plant like tobacco or brew it as a tea. It produces feelings of euphoria and alertness that can verge on mania and hyperactivity depending on the variety and freshness of the plant.
But some experts are not convinced that its health and social effects are so benign. A World Health Organization report found that consumption can lead to increased blood pressure, insomnia, anorexia, constipation and general malaise. The report also said that khat can be addictive and lead to psychological and social problems.
“It is not coffee. It is definitely not like coffee,” said Garrison Courtney, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration. “It is the same drug used by young kids who go out and shoot people in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is something that gives you a heightened sense of invincibility, and when you look at those effects, you could take out the word ‘khat’ and put in ‘heroin’ or ‘cocaine’.”
Khat comes from the leaves and stems of a shrub and must be shipped in overnight containers to preserve its potency. It contains the alkaloid cathinone, similar in chemical structure to amphetamine but about half as potent, according to Nasir Warfa, a researcher in cross cultural studies at Queen Mary University of London.
The United Kingdom determined last year that evidence does not warrant restriction of khat. In the United States, the substance has been illegal under federal law since 1993.
But the world supply of khat is exploding. Countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya now rely on it as a major cash crop to bolster their economies. Khat is Ethiopia’s second largest export behind coffee.
Khat usage has grown so much in San Diego that Assemblyman Joel Anderson (R-San Diego) wrote a 2008 bill that added cathinone and its derivative cathine to California’s list of Schedule II drugs along with raw opium, morphine and coca leaves.
As of Thursday, Anderson’s bill made possession of khat a misdemeanor in California, punishable by up to one year in county jail and a $1,000 fine. Possession of the leaf with intent to sell is a felony that carries a three-year maximum sentence in state prison.
In some cases, khat seizures have resulted in warnings and probation. In other instances, like New York City’s “Operation Somali Express” bust in 2006, which led to the seizure of 25 tons of khat worth an estimated $10 million, the perpetrators were sent to jail for up to 10 years.
“In my mind, [such arrests are] wrong,” said an Ethiopian-born cabdriver who was arrested in November in a Washington, D.C., khat bust and spoke on condition of anonymity. “They act like they know more about khat than I know.”
Khat leaves are sold attached to thick stalks or dried like tea leaves. A bundle of 40 leafed twigs costs about $28 to $50.
The plant’s cost has been linked to family problems, including domestic abuse, said Starlin Mohamud, a Somali immigrant who is completing a dissertation on khat at San Diego State University.
In fact, within the East African community in the U.S., there are many who welcome the khat restrictions.
“I have seen what it does,” Mohamud said. “Families who are trying to make ends meet on a daily basis cannot afford it. It just creates so many problems between a husband and wife to the point where a broken family is going to be the result.”
Not all lawmakers, however, support the increased efforts to prosecute khat sellers and users. California state Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Chino) called khat use “a minor problem that may be nonexistent and little understood” and voted against Anderson’s bill.
“The Legislature cannot continue to add on penalties and punishments filling up critically overcrowded prison system without weighing the consequences on how this will affect California,” she said.
Even though khat smuggling continues to grow in the United States, the level is nowhere near that of drugs like marijuana, cocaine, heroine and methamphetamine. Still, law enforcement officials worry that in a refined, stronger and more portable form, khat could spread outside the immigrant communities.
In Israel, a pill known as hagigat (essentially Hebrew for “party khat”), has emerged on the club scene.
Khat – is it more coffee or cocaine?