What Is Khat Addiction?
A Khat Factsheet: Centuries-Old Middle-Eastern Drug Growing in Popularity
By Hugh C. McBride
A plant that has been used as a stimulant for centuries in Eastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula may be gaining a foothold among drug users in the United States.
Khat (pronounced “Cot”), which is native to the region around Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen, produces an effect similar to (but usually less intense than) that of methamphetamine or cocaine. Many khat users chew fresh leaves from the plant, while others dry the leaves and then smoke them, brew them into a tea, or make them into a paste, which is also chewed.
Though the drug is thought to pre-date coffee, most Americans have neither used nor heard of it – but if a series of high-profile arrests and seizures are any indication, khat’s relative anonymity in the western hemisphere may be changing.
ABOUT THE PLANT
According to an assessment posted on the World Health Organization’s website, khat use “induces a state of euphoria and elation with feelings of increased alertness and arousal.” In addition to taking khat for the high it produces, users also ingest the plant as a means of fighting fatigue and staving off hunger (the drug also serves as an appetite suppressant).
The two primary psychoactive compounds in khat are cathinone and cathine:
- Cathinone, which is believed to have the greater effect on khat users, is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States, meaning that in the eyes of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the substance has a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical value.
- Cathine is categorized as a Schedule IV drug, meaning that it has a low potential for abuse, and is currently accepted for use in medical treatment.
Long-term use of khat can lead to malnutrition, depression, gastro-intestinal disorders, cardiovascular problems, hemorrhoids, and impaired sexual function in males.
A GLOBAL CONCERN
Khat is illegal in the United States, Canada, and many other nations, though a recent attempt to ban the substance in the United Kingdom was rebuffed. In 1980, the WHO declared khat to be a highly addictive substance – but almost three decades after this declaration, the drug remains extremely popular in some parts of the world.
Writing in the September/November 1997 edition of Maroodi Jeex: Somaliland Alternative Newsletter, Mohamed Bali attempts to describe the manner in which the drug has woven itself into the social fabric of some African and Arabic cultures:
In Yemen and the Horn of Africa, Khat is much more than a psychotropic plant. It is the basis of a lifestyle and plays a dominant role in all male activities – celebrations, marriages, business proceedings, and political meetings, as [John] Lancaster explains in a [Washington Post] article:
Khat is used by the lowliest goatherd and loftiest government minister. It defines the rhythms of the day. Government offices close at 2 p.m., allowing plenty of time to chew … They sprawl on cushions, puffing on water pipes or cigarettes and sipping from water bottles to combat the dehydration that is one of the Khat’s side effects.
Conversation, which flows rapidly at the outset, wanes as the Khat begins to take effect and the chewers approach “Soloma’s hour,” an introspective time that is often accompanied by the playing of the oud. …The typical session lasts from three to four hours, after which the chewer spits out his wad of Khat-mulch and goes home.”
According to The Washington Post, the world leader in khat consumption is Somalia, where an estimated 75 percent of adult males use the drug. A report by the National Center for Biotechnology Information on khat use by Somalians states that “since World War II, the prevalence of the practice has continuously increased and no social group is excluded.”
KHAT IN THE UNITED STATES
Experts believe that one of the primary reasons that khat use has not caught on in the United States is that the drug does not have a long “shelf life” during which it can be harvested, transported, and distributed. Smuggling fresh leaves from a plant in Yemen to a user in the United States without losing the drug’s potency is a challenging proposition, though the following reports indicate that the difficulty has not dissuaded all attempts:
- New York – A July 26, 2006 DEA press release announced that an 18-month investigation dubbed “Operation Somali Express” had culminated in the arrests of 44 individuals and the seizure of more than five tons of khat. The arrested khat smugglers were charged with bringing 25 tons of the drug into New York via commercial air or mail, then transporting it over land to destinations in Ohio, Minnesota, Maine, Massachusetts, Utah, Washington, Illinois, and the District of Columbia.
- North Dakota – Police at the Hector International Airport in Fargo arrested two men and seized 600 pounds of khat in January 2008. Police officials, who delayed announcing this bust for five months while investigating the matter, told several local news outlets that they believe smugglers were planning to drive the drug from the airport to Minneapolis, Minn., for distribution.
- Pennsylvania -According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, customs agents seized more than 2.5 tons of khat in Philadelphia in 2007. An April seizure of 12 pounds of the drug in packages sent from the Netherlands and Germany raised the city’s 2008 total to 306 pounds, Inquirer staff writer Andrew Maykuth reported.
- Utah – Federal officers at the Salt Lake City airport disrupted an attempt to smuggle more than 400 pounds of khat into the United States in December 2007. On June 5, 2008, the Deseret News reported that Patrick Bahati, a 24-year-old Tutsi who had fled the Democratic Republic of Congo during the attempted genocide in his home country, had been sentenced to two years in custody and three years of probation for his role in the crime.
The U.S. Department of Justice believes that most khat use in the United States takes place within Somali, Yemeni, and Ethiopian communities, though officials note that increases in seizures of the drug indicate that it may be becoming more popular in other populations as well.
An Intelligence Bulletin that was issued in May 2003 by the National Drug Intelligence center indicates that the difficulties of transporting the drug – and the prevalence of drugs with similar effects – will likely preclude a khat epidemic here. But continued increases in khat’s availability, the NDI states, ensures that the dug will remain “a growing concern among law enforcement agencies in the United States.”