Catha Edulis: Composition, Therapeutic use, Treatment. Catha Edulis effects. Reactions with other drugs.

Last modified: Thursday, 25. December 2008 - 9:34 am

Official names: Catha edulis or Catha edulis Forssk

Street names: Khat, qat in Yemen, tschat in Ethiopia; miraa in Kenya; Abyssinian tea, African salad, African tea, Arabian tea, Bushman’s tea, chafta, chat, ciat, crafta, djimma, flower of paradise, ikwa, ischott, iubulu, kaad, kafta, kat, la salade, liss, liruti, mairongi, mandoma, maonj, marongi, mbugula mabwe, mhulu, miungi, mlonge, msabukinga, mas-bukinja, msuruti, msuvuti, msekera, muholo, muhulu, muirungi, mulungi, muraa, musitate, mutsawari, mwandama, mzengo, nangungwe, ol meraa, ol nerra, quat, salahin, seri, Somali tea, tohai, tohat, tsad, tschad, tschat, tshut, tumayot, waifo, warfi, warfo

Drug classifications: Cathinone: Schedule I, stimulant; cathine: Schedule IV, stimulant


Key terms

ALKALOID: Any organic agent isolated from plants that contains nitrogen and reacts with an acid to form a salt.

AMPHETAMINES: A class of drugs frequently abused as a stimulant. Used medically to treat narcolepsy (a condition characterized by brief attacks of deep sleep) and as an appetite suppressant.

DOPAMINE: Neurotransmitter associated with the regulation of movement, emotional response, pleasure, and pain.



The Catha edulis (khat) plant is a flowering evergreen shrub or tree with a slender trunk and thin bark. Khat is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant that contains the psychoactive ingredients cathinone, which is structurally and chemically similar to the d-ampheta-mines (drugs like cocaine); and cathine, a milder form of cathinone; as well as cahine and norephedrine. Khat, which is believed to have originated in Ethiopia, is native to the eastern and southern regions of Africa and the southern Arab peninsula. However, the plant was later cultivated in Kenya, Malawi (formerly Nyasaland), Uganda, Tanzania (formerly Tanganyika), Arabia, Zimbabwe (formerly the Congo), Zambia (formerly Rhodesia), and South Africa. In those countries, khat trees are sometimes planted between coffee trees.

The plant grows best at elevations of 4,500-6,500 ft (1,370-1,980 m). In areas with frost, the shrub grows no higher than 5 ft (1.5 m). However, in areas where the rainfall is heavy, such as the highlands of Ethiopia and regions near the equator, khat trees can reach 20 ft (6 m). Although khat thrives in areas of plentiful rainfall, the plant also grows during periods of drought when other crops fail.

Khat’s elliptical leaves, which resemble basil in size and shape, are reddish-green and glossy but become yellow-green and leathery as they age. The plant’s flowers are small and white. The most prized parts of the plants are the young shoots, buds, and leaves near the top of the plant. Although the older leaves near the middle and lower sections of the plant are also used, as are the stems, these portions of the plant are considered inferior and less potent.

The leaves are not picked until the plant is four years old; harvest occurs during the dry season. The first harvest is considered inferior to later ones. Leaves gathered from plants over six years of age are most valued, possibly due to greater alkaloid accumulation. In addition, the foliage of cultivated plants is preferred over wild plants.

The production and consumption of khat occupy a prominent position in Yemeni culture. The increased affluence of that country in the 1980s and 1990s allowed an increasing percentage of the population to indulge in the habit, which the government has attempted through various measures to discourage. Greater demand, however, has fueled a substantial increase in khat acreage. As productivity declines, older coffee plantations are often converted to khat fields. Much of the land devoted to khat was formerly considered marginal for commercial agricultural purposes and later benefited from regular soil-enhancement programs. A portion of Yemen’s khat crop is exported to Ethiopia and Kenya.

Stimulant properties

Khat leaves left unrefrigerated beyond 48 hours contain only cathine, which explains users’ preference for fresh leaves. The young leaves and buds are chewed as a mild stimulant; the chewing produces a strong aroma and generates intense thirst.

The amphetamine class of stimulants are potent, indirect-acting agents that cause a release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine from storage areas in the CNS. The mildest CNS stimulant is phenethylamine (PEA), a component of cheese and chocolate, while cocaine is considered a potent CNS stimulant.

The neurons activated by amphetamines are dense in the pleasure center of the brain; and the depletion of the stores sets up a demand for progressively higher doses to achieve the same “high,” and accounts for the sometimes profound depression, or “crash,” that follows a drug binge.

In experiments with such animals as rats and monkeys, which were trained to self-administer amphetamines, researchers observed a pattern that they described as “spree-type.” The animals took the drug frequently day and night, stopping only after becoming exhausted, and beginning again after recovery. This pattern is similar to that seen in amphetamine-dependent humans. Thus, in terms of pharmacology, chewing khat leaves produces the same amphetamine effect.

Stimulants first may cause exhilaration and hyper-activity, dilated pupils, then produce irritability, anxiety, apprehension, and insomnia. Large doses of stimulants can cause repetitive teeth grinding, weight loss, and paranoia. An overdose can result in dizziness, tremors, agitation, panic, hostility, abdominal cramps, chest pains, and palpitations. Extreme overdoses can result in cardiac arrest, stroke, or death.

In the 1990s, methcathinone — called by various Street names such as cat, goob, Jeff, speed, bathtub speed, mulka, gaggers, the C, wild cat, Cadillac express, and ephedrine — appeared as a drug of abuse on the black market. Methcathinone, a synthetic form of cathinone, is an even more potent stimulant than its natural counterpart and is illegal in the United States.

Although methcathinone was studied in the 1950s to determine its potential for medical use, the study was abandoned due to the safety risks and side effects. Then in 1989, a University of Michigan student stole the old drug samples and documentation and began to manufacture and sell the drug throughout the United States.

Traditional use

The ancient Egyptians considered khat to be a sacred plant, a “divine food.” The Egyptians did not use khat merely for its stimulant properties but rather to unlock what they considered to be the divine aspect of their human nature.

Khat is believed to have been traded as a commodity even before coffee and is used throughout the Middle East countries in much the same way as coffee is used in Western culture. In addition to its use as a mild stimulant, khat use in Africa and the Middle East is more of a social phenomenon. Its intake occurs in moderation, for the most part, and often takes place in special rooms designed for that purpose.

Since antiquity, khat has also been used in religious contexts by natives of Eastern Africa and the Arab peninsula. For example, khat was used, in moderation, as a stimulant to alleviate feelings of hunger (some members of the Islamic faith use khat during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Moslem year, which is spent fasting from sunrise to sunset) and fatigue.

In Yemen, khat has played a pivotal role in poetry, music, architecture, family relations, wedding and funerary rites, home furnishings, clothes, what people eat, when restaurants open and close, where roads go to and where not, who owns a car and who does not, office hours, television schedules, and even sexual relations. However, there has been a decreased productivity and a diversion of income attributed to its use as well.

Modern use

Conservative estimates state that khat accounts for one third of the gross national product of Yemen. In Ethiopia, khat is also a major cash crop. In the United States, khat use is most popular among immigrants from Yemen and the East African nations of Somalia and Ethiopia. The U.S. public became more aware of this exotic drug through media reports pertaining to the United Nations’ mission in Somalia, where khat use is endemic, and the drug’s role in the Persian Gulf War.

Khat can be purchased in the United States in various ethnic bars, restaurants, grocery stores, and smoke shops. Once imported and available on the streets of the United States, khat found its way into the hands of a broader population of users than ever before. Its use has been linked to the dance/rave scene in the United States as well as in countries around the world.

Fresh khat leaves are most often prepared for shipment in bouquet-sized bundles, wrapped in plastic bags or banana leaves, then tied together. The bundles are sprayed with water to keep the leaves fresh and moist, especially important when the leaves are shipped outside of the country of origin.

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