Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department




Common names:  

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 plants.

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.

The horticultural 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 Catha 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.