Khat (Catha edulis) is a flowering plant 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 moderatepsychological 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.It is 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.
Man chewing khat in Sana’a, Yemen, January 2009
Allegedly according to some sources, but disputed by others, khat’s exact place of origin is uncertain.One argument is that it was first grown in Ethiopia,with the explorer Sir Richard Burton suggesting that the plant was later introduced to Yemen from Ethiopia in the 15th century. He specifically mentions the eastern city of Harar as the birthplace of the plant.
However, 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.
The earliest known documented description of khat is found in the Kitab al-Saidala fi al-Tibb كتاب الصيدلة في الطب, an 11th century work onpharmacy and materia medica written by Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī, a Persian scientist and biologist. Unaware of its origins, al-Bīrūnī wrote that khat is:
a commodity from Turkestan. It is sour to taste and slenderly made in the manner of batan-alu. But khat is reddish with a slight blackish tinge. It is believed that batan-alu is red, coolant, relieves biliousness, and is a refrigerant for the stomach and the liver.
In 1854, Malay writer Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir noted that the custom of chewing khat was prevalent in Al Hudaydah in Yemen
You observed a new peculiarity in this city – everyone chewed leaves as goats chew the cud. There is a type of leaf, rather wide and about two fingers in length, which is widely sold, as people would consume these leaves just as they are; unlike betel leaves, which need certain condiments to go with them, these leaves were just stuffed fully into the mouth and munched. Thus when people gathered around, the remnants from these leaves would pile up in front of them. When they spat, their saliva was green. I then queried them on this matter: ‘What benefits are there to be gained from eating these leaves?’ To which they replied, ‘None whatsoever, it’s just another expense for us as we’ve grown accustomed to it’. Those who consume these leaves have to eat lots of ghee and honey, for they would fall ill otherwise. The leaves are known as Kad.”
khat contains Cathinone ,
or benzoylethanamine (marketed as hagigat in Israel), is amonoamine alkaloid found in the shrub Catha edulis (khat) and is chemically similar toephedrine, cathine and other amphetamines. Cathinone induces the release of dopaminefrom striatal preparations that are prelabelled either with dopamine or its precursors. It is probably the main contributor to the stimulant effect of Catha edulis. Cathinone differs from many other amphetamines in that it has a ketone functional group. Other amphetamines that share this structure include the antidepressant bupropion and the stimulantmethcathinone, among others.
Internationally, cathinone is a Schedule I drug under the Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Circa 1993, the DEA added cathinone to the Controlled Substances Act’s Schedule I.
The sale of khat is legal in some jurisdictions, but illegal in others — see Khat (Regulation). Synthetic cathinone is also often used as the key ingredient of recreational drug mixes commonly known as ‘bath salts’ in the United States.
Cathinone is structurally related tomethcathinone, in much the same way asamphetamine is related to methamphetamine. Cathinone differs from amphetamine by possessing a ketone oxygen atom (C=O) on the β (beta) position of the side chain. The corresponding alcohol compound cathine is a less powerful stimulant. The biophysiological conversion from cathinone to cathine is to blame for the depotentiation of khat leaves over time. Fresh leaves have a greater ratio of cathinone to cathine than dried ones, therefore having more psychoactive effects.
Cathinone can be extracted from Catha edulis, or synthesized from α-bromopropiophenone(which is easily made from propiophenone).