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What Is Khat?

Khat is an East African evergreen shrub known for its stimulant effects.
Africans have been chewing the oval dark green leaves of khat for centuries.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2014
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Khat is a flowering evergreen shrub native to East Africa. Fresh leaves have been chewed by Africans to take advantage of their stimulant properties for centuries, and khat is also exported to other regions of the world. Due to concerns about its potential addictive qualities, it is considered a controlled substance in many nations, and some have an outright ban to restrict imports.

Africans have been chewing the oval dark green leaves of khat since at least the 11th century CE, when Muslim travelers in Africa wrote about its use as a social drug in the regions they visited. Khat appears to have originated in Ethiopia or Yemen, and because the leaves must be consumed fresh for their effects to be felt, it probably spread slowly across Africa, with people bringing back plants to grow and then introducing their regions to it.

Several compounds in khat appear to be responsible for its stimulant effects, the most potent of which is cathinone. Cathinone has a similar chemical structure to amphetamine, and like other stimulants, khat causes feelings of euphoria and high energy; it can also cause hallucinations. Historically, people took it to stay alert while traveling and working, and the leaves were also chewed after heavy nights of drinking to dispel headaches. In some parts of Africa, the leaves are consumed by groups of men as a social activity.

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When people chew khat, they crush the leaves and then tuck them into their cheeks, periodically chewing them again to release more of the active ingredients. It can also be turned into tea or sprinkled on food. As a general rule, the leaves are only good for around 48 hours after harvest, which explains why it was largely restricted to Africa until the late 20th century, when advanced air transport made it possible to overnight the drug to other regions.

Catha edulis, as khat is formally known, has not been studied as extensively as some other controlled substances. Its effects are clearly documented, but researchers are not as sure about its addictive properties. It certainly shares enough traits with amphetamine to be potentially addictive, and long term users do seem to experience some addictive symptoms, but some people feel that further study is needed.

In nations where khat is a controlled substance, African immigrants are sometimes permitted to apply for permits to import it, under the argument that it is an important part of their cultural traditions. In regions with bans, smuggling can be a profitable business, when the smugglers don't get caught.

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discographer
Post 6

@simrin-- I don't agree with you guys. Khat is a drug. It causes delirium, laughing, a feeling of loss of sense and time. I'm not saying that there aren't other stimulants that have similar affects. But khat definitely acts like any other recreational drug out there.

My husband said he tried this once when he was in South Africa and he doesn't understand why people like it. Apparently, it tastes like a house plant and isn't very pleasant.

It's interesting because it's so popular in some countries, it's almost like a staple. I read that 80% of people in Yemen use khat. I think that's an unbelievable number.

ZipLine
Post 5

@nextcorrea-- Sorry, you can't get it in the US, it's illegal. It's allowed in the UK, but I don't think that you can order it from there either. You could get into a lot of trouble bringing khat to the US.

SteamLouis
Post 4

@ZsaZsa56-- That is true. The World Health Organization actually labeled khat as moderately addictive. So it's not even as addictive as alcohol and cigarettes. Cigarettes are classified as a stimulant and alcohol is classified as a drug.

If some countries are so keen on banning khat, I suggest that they ban alcohol and cigarettes first. Those two are more dangerous for society than khat can ever be. Millions of people die every year due to kidney failure from alcoholism and lung cancer from cigarette smoking.

nextcorrea
Post 3

Where can I buy khat? I have a friend from Somalia that has been searching for it ever since he got to the states but he can't find it anywhere. If I can, I would like to give him some as a gift.

ZsaZsa56
Post 2
@vigilant - I spent some time in North Africa and I tried khat myself on a few occasions. You are right, it is ridiculous to think of this as a drug. In fact, most westerners will probably notice no effect from the leaves because we are so hopped up on other stimulants.
vigilant
Post 1

Has anyone ever tried chewing khat before? What does it feel like? This is just one of many natural stimulants that I have heard about native populations chewing.

We have unfortunately labeled these things as drugs when they are better thought of as natural remedies. What do you think is better for you, chewing on a handful of leaves or guzzling a giant can of energy drink filled with caffeine and sugar?

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