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Pharmakologie & Toxikologie 1. Oktober 2009

Khat – a controversial plant

Khat (Catha edulis) is a shrub or tree whose leaves have been chewed for centuries by people who live in the Eastern part of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It has recently turned up in North America and Europe, particularly among emigrants and refugees from countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen. Khat contains a number of chemicals, among which are two controlled substances, cathinone (Schedule I) and cathine (Schedule IV). Both chemicals are stimulant drugs with effects similar to amphetamine. Chewing the leaves makes people feel more alert and talkative, and suppresses appetite. Chewing khat leaves releases cathinone, a stimulant that produces the feeling of euphoria. When cathinone is broken down in the body, it produces chemicals including cathine and norephedrine, which have a similar structure to amphetamine and adrenaline (epinephrine). Regular khat use is associated with a rise in arterial blood pressure and pulse rate, corresponding with levels of cathinone in the plasma. Moreover, regular khat chewers have gingivitis and loose teeth, but there appears to be no convincing unusual incidence of oral cancer. Among khat users in Yemen there is, however, a higher incidence of esophageal cancer compared with gastric cancer. Long term use or abuse can cause insomnia, anorexia, gastric disorders, depression, liver damage and cardiac complications, including myocardial infarction. Manic and delusional behavior, violence, suicidal depression, hallucinations, paranoia and khat-induced psychosis have also been reported. On the basis of the scientific data it seems clear that khat use has negative consequences on the economic development of a country and on the health of the society.

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