What Exactly is Khat?


There are many different types of mind-altering drugs out there. And most drugs have different versions of themselves, hybrid combinations and altered chemical structures to make entirely different and unique substances. It can seem almost impossible to keep up with every type of drug being used today.

That worries families, and rightly so. How can families take care of each other and protect each other when there are new drugs on the scene every year? New substances that one does not even understand the name of?

Case in point, “khat” is one of those lesser-known drugs.

What is Khat?

Khat is a shrub found in East Africa and southern Arabia. The plant contains the psychoactive chemicals cathinone and cathine. The drug is not too common Arabiain the U.S. (although that is difficult to determine because the U.S. does not record statistics on khat usage). However, about 20 million people worldwide use khat for its stimulant-like and mind-altering properties.

As for how it is used, the leaves of the khat plant are usually chewed or brewed into a tea. The drug is labeled as a Schedule I controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration, meaning khat has harmful effects and no medicinal purposes. Side effects of using khat include:

  • Brief euphoria
  • Increased alertness and physical, mental arousal
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate (potentially dangerous)
  • Depression
  • Paranoia
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Tremors
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Constipation
  • Ulcers
  • Stomach inflammation
  • A significant increase in the risk of heart attack

Even if khat is not necessarily as addictive or as dangerous as heroin, meth, painkillers, cocaine, fentanyl, or other hard drugs, the above list provides many reasons why people would not want to experiment with khat.

New Research Offers More Data on Why People Should Avoid Khat

The leaves of the khat plant have been chewed raw or brewed in tea for hundreds of years. Khat was once a prominent ceremonial drug among indigenous tribes. But for many generations, the actual health complications of khat remained unknown. Recently, a study was published in a Middle Eastern medical journal that suggested khat had potentially lethal consequences and that its use could cause or exacerbate heart disease.

“We need to be careful about the risk of using ’herbs’ and ’natural substances,’ and khat is an example, although it is leaves, which appear ‘harmless.’ It has chemical constituents that are similar to harmful drugs, such as cocaine and amphetamine…”

According to study co-author Dr. Jassim Al Suwaidi, senior consultant cardiologist at Hamad General Hospital in Doha, Qatar: “We need to be careful about the risk of using ’herbs’ and ’natural substances,’ and khat is an example, although it is leaves, which appear ‘harmless.’ It has chemical constituents that are similar to harmful drugs, such as cocaine and amphetamine, and may cause heart attack as well as increase the risk of death and stroke from heart attack.”

Dr. Suwaidi went on to report that khat’s principal active ingredients are cathine and cathinone. And while these chemicals occur naturally in the khat plant, the chemicals are also quite similar in structure to amphetamine and have similar stimulant effects. It’s worth mentioning that khat is not as potent as amphetamine. But the plant’s psychoactive component is still very similar.

In addition to khat being a cause for heart problems in some users, there are other adverse side effects, too. The research suggests that the long-term chewing of khat leaves can lead to both tooth decay and gastrointestinal problems. Neither is likely to be fatal, but both are undoubtedly harmful.

After Years of Legal Use, Brits Ban the Khat Plant

For decades, the legality of khat and other drugs like it was in debate. In many European countries, the drug has been illegal for decades. In Great Britain, however, the drug remained legal up until 2013. And while British health organizations like the U.K. Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs still say that the drug is unlikely to cause any serious health effects, the country went forward with banning both the plant and its processed leaves anyway. Why? Because even a chance for serious health effects is not acceptable.

With each passing year, more is discovered about various drugs that have been used for centuries but which haven't been fully understood. And with each bit of new information, more countries and their populations see the need to avoid such substances.

Father talks with his son

Keeping Your Family Safe and Drug-Free

The best way to keep your family safe from drugs like khat and other plant-based hallucinogenics and stimulants is to simply get everyone in the family informed and educated on such substances. One of the main reasons why people (and especially young people) allow themselves to be sold on the idea of using khat, kratom, salvia, peyote, and other plant-based drugs is because they are never told about the risks involved. “It’s just a plant. You’ll be fine.” That’s the general line given to people by drug dealers and other users.

However, when people understand the truth about drugs, they are far less likely to experiment with such substances. For those who have not yet used khat, getting informed about the drug is crucial.

For those who have already started using khat and other drugs, seeking addiction treatment is a must before conditions worsen. There is never a good reason to use drugs of any kind. Mind-altering drugs have harmful components to them, and continual drug use acts as a dwindling spiral and a potentially lethal crisis. If you know someone who is using drugs and alcohol but who can’t seem to stop, make sure they get help today.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.