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Khat factsheet

Friday, October 29, 2004
Khat factsheet
Photo:eesti/Flickr

What is it?
Khat is a leafy green shrub that can grow to tree size. The leaves of the khat plant are chewed for their amphetamine-like stimulant effects. The active ingredients of khat are cathinone and cathine, which produce psychotropic, euphoric, metabolic and cardiovascular effects similar to amphetamine.

Where does it grow?
Khat trees are often grown interspersed with coffee trees. Khat grows at high altitudes in the region extending from eastern to southern Africa, as well as on the Arabian peninsula. Originating in Ethiopia, khat now also grows in Somalia, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, the Congo, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Yemen and Madagascar.

Street names
Khat (cat), qat ( Yemen ), chat, qaadka, miraa ( Kenya ), tohai, tschat ( Ethiopia ), Abyssinian tea, African tea, African salad

Who uses it?
The chewing of khat leaves is common in some countries of east Africa and the Arabian peninsula. It has a deep-rooted social and cultural tradition in some Muslim, Somali and Yemeni cultures. In some Muslim countries in which alcohol is prohibited, khat is commonly used in social situations, although it is often condemned on religious grounds.

Khat chewing is predominantly a male activity, though women are occasionally involved and, according to some reports, this is increasingly the case in Australia. For example, some women who did not chew khat in their former homeland began to use khat after their arrival in Australia.

Khat is not considered to be a "street drug", but in the United States illegal laboratories have been discovered using a synthetic form of khat's most active ingredient, cathinone, which is called "methcathinone" and known on the street as "Cat".

How and why is it used?
Although khat is most commonly chewed, it is sometimes taken as a tea or smoked. Khat must be chewed while it is fresh (within 48 hours), so it is usually wrapped in banana leaves or plastic after picking, to preserve its potency.

Khat is generally used by individuals as a recreational drug. Historically, khat has been used for medicinal purposes and as an aphrodisiac, though it has also been used for recreational purposes. References to khat use can be found in eighteenth century Arab journals describing how physicians prescribed khat to treat depression and lack of energy.

Khat is usually chewed in company, but may be used by individuals to enhance their working capacity. In some countries, such as in Yemen, "khat parties", also known as majlis, have a long history as part of formal social customs, for example, to encourage discussion of community issues. The majlis had their own traditional rules about the appropriate age, time, style and quantity of use.

Is khat used in Australia?
Not much is known about khat use in Australia. In 1993 it was estimated that 700 to 1000 people in Melbourne enjoyed khat chewing. Most were thought to be from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya and Yemen. Given the increase in immigration of people from East African and Middle Eastern countries in recent years, it is possible khat use might become more common.

Is it legal?
Khat is not illegal in Australia, but its import is very strictly controlled. It is legal to import khat for personal use only. A person must obtain a Licence to Import khat. They must also obtain a Permit to Import for each shipment. A licence and permit holder may import up to five kilograms of khat per month for personal use, provided their State/ Territory Health Authority does not object to them being granted such a licence.

What are the effects of khat?
Khat is a stimulant. A typical chewing session is thought to be the equivalent of ingesting five milligrams of amphetamine sulphate. Usually 50 to 200 grams of the leaves are chewed. The onset of effect is within 20 minutes.

Following feelings of mild euphoria, talkativeness and suppression of their appetite, users have reported calming effects after a few hours. Other pleasurable effects reported include increased alertness and excitement. Unpleasant effects include impaired concentration and judgement, mood swings, confusion, disorientation and increase in nervousness and tension.

Unwanted physical and health effects associated with regular khat chewing include:

  • Sleeplessness
  • Nervousness
  • Impotence
  • Nightmares
  • Irritability, feelings of anger and violent outbursts
  • Gastro-intestinal tract problems such as constipation
  • Reduced appetite
  • Reduced birth weight in babies and inhibited lactation in khat-chewing mothers
  • Inflammation of the mouth and other parts of the oral cavity
  • Oral cancer.

Is it addictive?
It is unclear whether khat chewing can lead to dependence (addiction), but heavy khat chewers have been shown to experience withdrawal symptoms such as extreme tiredness and lack of energy, difficulty performing normal daily activities and slight trembling several days after having stopped chewing khat. Prolonged and excessive use can lead to psychological problems such as depression, anxiety and irritation, sometimes leading to psychosis.

Minimising the harms
The following guidelines may be of assistance:

  • The safest way to avoid problems with khat chewing is to avoid use.
  • If you are a regular user, try to reduce the quantity of your chewing, with reasonable intervals between sessions.
  • Avoid drinking caffeinated drinks such as cola and coffee. Drink water instead.
  • Avoid using alcohol or other drugs during or after your khat session. Mixing drugs can be dangerous.
  • If you smoke, limit the number of cigarettes you smoke while chewing khat. Avoid crowded sessions and keep windows open to allow in fresh air.
  • Have a balanced diet, and ensure you eat before and after your session.
  • Try to avoid chewing khat late at night, and never take sleeping pills unless prescribed by your doctor.
  • Avoid holding the khat in your cheek for a long time, as this can increase your risk of getting an oral infection.
  • If you are pregnant, avoid chewing khat, as this can lead to serious health risks to the baby.

Photo:eesti/Flickr


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