Photo by Luis Tato/The Washington Post

Learn | 02.21.2024

Khat: Effects, Use, And Legal Status Of The Psychoactive Plant

Exploring the intrigue and potential hazards of chewing this time-honored plant.

Imagine a plant that naturally kicks you like a strong cup of coffee.

This guide delves into the world of khat (Catha edulis), a perennial shrub native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, celebrated for its stimulating and euphoric effects. Khat’s leaves, rich in psychoactive substances similar to amphetamines, have made it a popular choice far beyond its native lands.

Join us as we explore khat’s key aspects, including chemistry, cultural impact, effects, usage and whether or not it’s legal for you to consume.

What Is Khat?

Photo by Drug and Alcohol Foundation

Khat is more than just a plant; it’s a cultural cornerstone in several Middle Eastern and East African countries, where its leaves are chewed during social gatherings to enhance mood, energy, and community bonding.

The active compounds, cathinone and cathine, mimic the action of common stimulants, affecting neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin, that play key roles in mood regulation and alertness. When chewed, khat leaves release these psychoactive ingredients into the body, leading to a rapid onset of effects. It typically increases alertness, heart rate, and blood pressure, offering energy and heightened social interaction.

The experience of using khat is immediate and varies by freshness of leaves, amount consumed, and individual metabolism.

Khat Consumption And Dosing

Photo by Luis Tato/The Washington Post

A traditional khat session involves chewing 100-300 grams (about one bundle), lasting several hours.

Users chew the leaves to release the juice, which is swallowed, while the chewed-up residue is spat out. Some also enjoy khat as a tea made from dried leaves.

A typical khat session can elevate alertness, increase heart rate and blood pressure, and suppress appetite, with effects lasting 3-4 hours. It’s best to start with smaller amounts to understand how your body reacts.

Be mindful of khat’s potential for chronic use to lead to health issues, including cardiovascular and gastrointestinal problems.

Health Implications Of Khat: Minor To Major Risks

Using khat can lead to a spectrum of health impacts, from mild issues like mood swings and insomnia to severe risks, including heart attacks and psychological disorders. Awareness of these risks is crucial for anyone considering khat.

Mild risks include:

  • Mood swings, including euphoria, depression, and anxiety
  • Hyperactivity and aggressiveness
  • Difficulty concentrating and malaise
  • Insomnia and disturbed sleep patterns
  • Rapid heart rate and heart palpitations
  • Increased blood pressure and faster breathing rates
  • Dry mouth, mouth ulcers, and gum disease
  • Jaw stiffness
  • Inflammation of the esophagus and stomach
  • Constipation

Severe risks include:

  • Manic behavior, paranoia, and psychoses
  • Migraine and bleeding in the brain
  • Heart attack and lung problems
  • Liver damage and changes in sex drive
  • Impotence and other sexual health issues
  • Infections leading to pain below the ribs, changes in white blood cells, and an enlarged liver
  • Psychological and mental disorders from long-term use
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular diseases in regular young users
  • Potential complications during pregnancy, including lower birth weight

Legal Status

Khat’s legal status varies globally. It’s illegal and classified as a controlled substance in countries like Australia, Canada, the EU, India, Jordan, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the UK, with the US categorizing its active compound, cathinone, as a Schedule I drug.

Khat is legal in Yemen and some African countries like Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, where it’s part of local customs and regulated by tax laws.

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