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Khat (Catha edulis) is a slow-growing shrub or tree that grows to between 1.4 m and 3.1 m tall, depending on region and rainfall. It has evergreen leaves 5–10 cm long and 1–4 cm broad. The flowers are produced on short axillary cymes 4–8 cm long. Each flower is small, with five white petals. The fruit is an oblong three-valved capsule containing 1–3 seeds. Growing It takes nearly seven to eight years for the Khat plant to reach its full height. Other than access to sun and water, Khat requires little maintenance. Ground water is often pumped from deep wells by diesel engines to irrigate the crops, or brought in by water trucks. The plants are watered heavily starting around a month before they are harvested to make the leaves and stems soft and moist. A good Khat plant can be harvested four times a year, providing a year long source of income for the farmer.
It is native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Among communities from these areas, Khat chewing has a long history as a social custom dating back thousands of years. Khat contains a monoamine alkaloid called cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant, which is said to cause excitement, loss of appetite and euphoria. In 1980, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified it as a drug of abuse that can produce mild to moderate psychological dependence (less than tobacco or alcohol), although the WHO does not consider Khat to be seriously addictive. The plant has been targeted by anti-drug organizations such as the DEA and is therefore a controlled substance in some countries, such as the United States, Canada and Germany, while its production, sale and consumption are legal in other nations, including Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen. (as of writing this article but readers should check for themselves whether or not Khat is legal in their country and not rely on this website).
Amongst communities in the Horn of Africa (Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia) and the Arabian Peninsula, Khat chewing has a long history as a social custom dating back thousands of years. The Ancient Egyptians considered the Khat plant a divine food, which was capable of releasing humanity's divinity. The Egyptians used the plant for more than its stimulating effects; they used it for transcending into "apotheosis", with the intent of making the user god-like.
There and in other parts of North Africa and the middle East (especially Yemen) the chewing Khat predates the use of coffee and is used in a similar social context. Its fresh leaves and tops are chewed or, less frequently, dried and consumed as tea, in order to achieve a state of euphoria and stimulation; it also has anorectic side-effects. The leaves or the soft part of the stem can be chewed with either chewing gum or fried peanuts to make it easier to chew. Khat use has traditionally been confined to the regions where it is grown, because only the fresh leaves have the desired stimulating effects. In recent years, however, improved roads, off-road motor vehicles, and air transportation have increased the global distribution of this perishable commodity, and as a result, the plant has been reported in England, Wales, Rome, Amsterdam, Canada, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Traditionally Khat is used as a socializing drug, and this is still very much the case in Yemen, where Khat chewing is predominantly a male habit. Yemenis use traditional costumes and chew the stimulating plant in the afternoons. Chewing Khat is also part of the Yemeni business culture to promote decision-making, but foreigners are not expected to participate. Some Yemeni women have their own saloons for the occasion, and participate in chewing Khat with their husbands on weekends. Khat is so popular in Yemen that its cultivation consumes much of the country's agricultural resources.
Chemistry and pharmacology
Cathinone Chemical Structure
The stimulant effect of the plant was originally attributed to "katin", cathine, a phenethylamine-type substance isolated from the plant. However, the attribution was disputed by reports showing the plant extracts from fresh leaves contained another substance more behaviorally active than cathine. In 1975, the related alkaloid cathinone was isolated, and its absolute configuration was established in 1978. Cathinone is not very stable and breaks down to produce cathine and norephedrine. These chemicals belong to the PPA (phenylpropanolamine) family, a subset of the phenethylamines related to amphetamines and the catecholamines epinephrine and norepinephrine.
In fact, cathinone and cathine have a very similar molecular structure to amphetamine. Khat is sometimes confused with methcathinone (also known as cat), a Schedule I substance that possess a similar chemical structure to the Khat plant's cathinone active component. However, both the side effects and the addictive properties of methcathinone are much stronger than those associated with Khat use. When Khat leaves dry, the more potent chemical, cathinone, decomposes within 48 hours leaving behind the milder chemical, cathine. Thus, harvesters transport Khat by packaging the leaves and stems in plastic bags or wrapping them in banana leaves to preserve their moisture and keep the cathinone potent. It is also common for them to sprinkle the plant with water frequently or use refrigeration during transportation. When the Khat leaves are chewed, cathine and cathinone are released and absorbed through the mucous membranes of the mouth and the lining of the stomach. The action of cathine and cathinone on the reuptake of epinephrine and norepinephrine has been demonstrated in lab animals, showing that one or both of these chemicals cause the body to recycle these neurotransmitters more slowly, resulting in the wakefulness and insomnia associated with Khat use. Receptors for serotonin show a high affinity for cathinone suggesting that this chemical is responsible for feelings of euphoria associated with chewing Khat. In mice, cathinone produces the same types of nervous pacing or repetitive scratching behaviors associated with amphetamines. The effects of cathinone peak after 15 to 30 minutes with nearly 98% of the substance metabolized into norephedrine by the liver. Cathine is somewhat less understood, being believed to act upon the adrenergic receptors causing the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine. It has a half-life of about three hours in humans.
Comparison of physical harm and dependence regarding various drugs Khat consumption induces mild euphoria and excitement, similar to that conferred by strong coffee. Individuals become very talkative under the influence of the plant. The effects of oral administration of cathinone occur more rapidly than the effects of amphetamine pills, roughly 15 minutes as compared to 30 minutes in amphetamine. Khat can induce manic behaviors and hyperactivity similar in effects to those produced by amphetamine. The use of Khat results in constipation. Dilated pupils (mydriasis) are prominent during Khat consumption, reflecting the sympathomimetic effects of the drug, which are also reflected in increased heart rate and blood pressure. Withdrawal symptoms that may follow occasional use include mild depression and irritability. Withdrawal symptoms that may follow prolonged Khat use include lethargy, mild depression, nightmares, and slight tremor. Khat is an effective anorectic (causes loss of appetite). Long-term use can precipitate the following effects: negative impact on liver function, permanent tooth darkening (of a greenish tinge), susceptibility to ulcers, and diminished sex drive.