What is Khat?
Khat (Catha edulis) comes from an evergreen tree which grows at high altitudes extending from East to Southern Africa. Its main substance is cathinone. In Africa many people chew fresh leaves to make life a little more pleasant, in rural areas it starts soon after breakfast, and continues throughout the day. Even the children chew khat. The stimulant effect lightens the daily tasks. It is also used in different ceremonies such as weddings. The active compound disapears after 48 hours, but dried khat still has stimulating qualities: it contains tanine, thiamine, niacine, riboflavine and caroteen, as well as iron and aminoacids.
According to L. Lewin (Phantastica, Narcotic and Stimulating Drugs, 1931) it was taken socially to produce excitation, banish sleep, and promote communication. It was used as a stimulant to dispel feelings of hunger and fatigue.
The natives chewed young buds and fresh leaves of Catha edulis (Celastrus edulis). Khat was used in Yemen even before coffee and it was immensely popular. Lewin described khat markets to which khat was brought in bundles of branches from the mountains.
The ancient Egyptians considered Catha edulis to be a most sacred plant, a "divine food" like royal jelly to bees, capable of releasing humanities nascent divinity. The Egyptians did not ingest khat merely to "get high", they used it to " trigger and impel the metamorphic process leading to a theurgic transmutation of human nature into apotheosis". Allowing the lowly mortal being to be "vergottet", or made God-like.
This plant was so important to the ancients that is was called "the plant" or "the shrub", although its specific name is lost to time.
Nowadays khat is used throughout eastern Africa, from the Middle East all the way south, and especially in Yemen, Somalia and Ethiopia it is still popular.
This is a large shrub which can grow to tree size. It reaches heights from 10 feet to 20 feet and its scrawny leaves resemble withered basil. Fresh khat leaves are crimson-brown and glossy but become yellow- green and leathery as they age. They also emit a strong smell. The most favoured part of the leaves are the young shoots near the top of the plant. However, leaves and stems at the middle and lower sections are also used.
The khat trees are grown interspersed between coffee trees.
The effect of chewing flesh khat could not be explained satisfactorily by the action of d-norpseudoephedrine which was, for a long time, believed to be the only stimulant in khat. A comprehensive study on the chemical composition of khat was undertaken at the United Nations Narcotics Laboratory with the aim of isolating and characterizing the principles of the flesh plant active on the central nervous system.
This work resulted in the detection and isolation of cathinone, a phenylaikylamine characterized as (-)-a-aminopropiophenone. It is the main phenylalkylamine component of fresh khat, and pharmacological studies indicate that it may be the compound responsible for the characteristic stimulant activity and abuse potential of the plant. Some of its "decomposition" or transformation products, such as norpseudoephedrine, norephedrine, 3,6-dimethyl-2,5-diphenyipyrazine, and 1-phenyl-1,2-propanedione, have also been isolated and characterized.
Khat is a stimulant producing a feeling of exaltation, a feeling of being liberated from space and time. It may produce extreme loquacity, inane laughing, and eventually semicoma. It may also be an euphorient and used chronically can lead to a form of delirium tremens. Upon first chewing khat, the initial effects can be unpleasant and include dizziness, lassitude, tachycardia, and sometimes epigastric pain. Gradually more pleasant feelings shall replace these inaugural symptoms.
Finally most people who use kath will have feelings of bliss, clarity of thought, and become euphoric and overly energetic. Sometimes khat produced depression, sleepiness, and then deep sleep. Most khat chewers can estimate the quantity they need to produce the desired effects without insomnia. Chronic users tend to be euphoric continually. Research of Galkin and Mironychev (1964) has proven this, but also that in rare cases a user can be aggressive and overly exited.
Advocates of khat use claim that it eases symptoms of diabetes, asthma, and stomach/intestinal tract disorders. Opponents claim that khat damages health, suppresses appetite, and prevents sleep.
Khat also may be sold as dried or crushed leaves or in powdered form. Illegal labs have been discovered using a synthetic form or khat's most active ingrediant (cathinione) which is called "Methcathinone", known on the street as "Cat".
A chewing session starts with slightly euphoric behavior and a friendly sense of humour. The leaves are plucked off the twigs, chewed, and stored against one or the other cheek. The mixture of saliva and extract from the leaves is swallowed.
As new leaves are taken, the cheek bulges out. The euphoric effects appear shortly after the chewing begins, suggesting absorption through the oral mucosa. The session and the friendly atmosphere last about 2 hours. Since there appears to be an absence of physical tolerance, due in part to limitations in how much can be ingested by chewing, there are no reports of physical symptoms accompanying withdrawal.
MAO-inhibitors are not be taken together with khat for the usual reasons. Khat has been rated slightly dangerous especially for children, people older than 55 and those who use quantities larger than appropriate for a longer period of time.
The respiratory rate and pulse rate will accelerate and the blood pressure tends to rise. Frequent users also have a decrease in the functional capacity of the cardiovascular system.
It's quite difficult to grow khat from seed, however once you have a plant growing it is easy to take cuttings. Catha edulis is adapted to a wide range of soil conditions (near Harar, where most of the Khat is grown, the soil is said to be neutral to slightly acidic despite being high in calcium and low in nitrogen) - it is suggested that water supply is more important than soil type, particularly in the early growing period.
Catha edulis does not tolerate poor drainage and will not grow well in wet soils.It will grow in full sun, partial sun, or even shade. In Ethiopia khat is not grown from seed, but is vegetatively propagated from 12" suckers or branches near the ground level, and sometimes by cuttings taken from branches (although these do not root so readily).
Plants are set out when the rainy season begins. The top parts will be cut back by frost but khat plants will grow back from the roots - unless they are frozen too. A good response in plant growth is realised from fertiliser applications. Nitrogen applications increase the vegetative growth of khat, and thus increase the yield.
Cathinone is an ingredient present only in freshly-picked leaves, (within 48 hours after harvest). Therefore khat is usually packaged in plastic bags or wrapped in banana leaves to retain its moistness and freshness. It is often sprinkled with water during transport to keep the leaves moist. The other substances remain still after 48 hours.
Links / Further reading
This article is based on the following resources/pages:
- Lewin, L., 1931, "Phantastica, Narcotic & Stimulating Drugs", Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
- Galkin, V.A., and Mironychev, A.V., 1964, Federation Proc., 23: suppl., T741.
Dr. Al-Khamel on Kath (including images)