OF THE WEEK
Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department
Khat, Chat, Kat, Cafta, Qat, Arabian Tea, Abyssinian Tea, Somali Tea
Scientific name: Catha edulis
Explanation of scientific name:
Catha - the Arabian name for this plant.
edulis - edible.
Many cultures have a
long history of incorporating stimulants derived from plants into rituals and
every day use. On a daily basis almost everyone in our country enjoys one or
more of the following: coffee, tea, cola, chocolate - all of which contain
mild stimulants that come from
In East Africa and
the Middle East, a plant commonly called Khat is a widely known stimulant. The
use of its leaves for a tea predates the use of coffee in these areas, and an
Arabic medical book over 700 years old recorded the stimulatory effects of this
tea. Today khat is less likely to
be found in a drink, but instead chewed. Several million people in East Africa
and on the Arabian Peninsula are regular chewers of Khat, and this habit has
come under close scrutiny since people can develop a psychic dependency on the
material, especially when it is chewed.
As early as 1935 the
League of Nations developed technical reports on the use of Khat, labeling it a
dangerous drug. In 1971 the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs began
investigating khat, and this led to the isolation of the active ingredient in
the leaves. Cathinone, as it came to be named, is an alkaloid chemically similar
to amphetamine. Cathinone is not found throughout the khat plant. Appreciable
amounts are found only in young leaves. As the leaves age, cathinone is
converted to cathine, a compound with less amphetamine-like properties. Shortly
after its discovery, cathinone was synthesized in the laboratory and the World
Health Organization sponsored research investigating its pharmacological
characteristics. The results indicated that its psychoactive
effects on animals correspond to those of amphetamine.
In 1993 the Drug
Enforcement Agency (DEA) of the US Department of Justice placed “any material
which contains cathinone” into Schedule I (the most restricted category of
psychotropic substances) of the
Controlled Substances Act. Thus, “ regulatory controls and criminal
sanctions....will be applied to the manufacture, distribution and possession of
cathinone”. Since all living khat plants will produce young leaves, it is now
illegal to possess this plant in the US.
world has yet to catch up with this DEA ruling. Nurseries still sell this plant,
and seed companies offer its seeds. Interestingly enough, the seeds are not illegal since they do not contain
cathinone. Landscaping books discuss the ornamental value of this evergreen
shrub or small tree from the mountains of tropical East Africa. It will grow in
southern Florida and California, and look attractive with its red-tinged leaves.
Khat will not grow in NJ because our winters are too cold.
All of this
information and legislation came as a surprise to this biology professor who set
out to write a simple essay on
edulis. His inquiries about the status of this species caught the
attention of the DEA, and he now knows that he wants nothing to do with this
plant in the future.