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Stimulant drug 'khat' catching on among Alaska's seafood industry workers?

Jim PaulinDutch Harbor Fisherman
Chewing khat leaves is reported to induce a state of euphoria and elation as well as feelings of increased alertness and arousal. flickr / echoforsberg

UNALASKA -- Is khat catching on among seafood industry workers trying to stay awake while working long hours of overtime, joining a long list of more familiar stimulants from coffee to pharmaceutical amphetamines? Maybe.

Khat, a drug well known in east Africa, has likely made another appearance in Unalaska. On June 30, 22 grams in a zippered plastic bag were turned in to the Unalaska Department of  Public Safety, according to police chief Jamie Sunderland.

A suspect has been identified as possessing the substance, found in the area of the Unisea seafood processing plant, Sunderland said.  The green leafy material has been sent to a laboratory to  determine if it is in fact khat ,he said.  If confirmed,  the suspect is expected to face criminal charges of about the same level as possession of marijuana, he said.

“We’ve run into it before on a very limited basis,” Sunderland said, describing khat as a “mild drug that people chew.”  As an illegal drug, khat is classified at about the same level as marijuana which he said it resembles at first glance.

Looked at more closely, it looks different than pot, lacking buds, he said.  He described the appearance as green and leafy and containing stems, and with an odor that’s different from marijuana.

Khat (pronounced “cot”) is a stimulant drug derived from a shrub (Catha edulis) that is native to East Africa including Somalia and Ethiopia, the homelands of a substantial number of  immigrants in the cosmopolitan seafood processing sector of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor.

The khat plant itself is not scheduled under the Controlled Substances Act; however, because one of the mind-altering chemicals found in it, cathinone, is a Schedule I drug (a controlled substance with no recognized therapeutic use), the federal government considers khat use illegal, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, a federal agency.

Leaves of the khat shrub are typically chewed and held in the cheek, like chewing tobacco, to release their stimulant chemicals. The main psychoactive ingredients in khat are cathinone and cathine. These chemicals are structurally similar to amphetamine and result in similar stimulant effects in the brain and body, although they are less potent. Like other stimulants, cathinone and cathine stimulate the release of the stress hormone and neurotransmitter norepinephrine and raise the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine in brain circuits regulating pleasure and movement, according to NIDA.

It is estimated that as many as 10 million people worldwide chew khat. It is commonly found in the southwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula and in East Africa, where it has been used for centuries as part of an established cultural tradition. In one large study in Yemen, 82 percent of men and 43 percent of women reported at least one lifetime episode of khat use. Its current use among particular migrant communities in the United States and in Europe has caused concern among policymakers and health care professionals. No reliable estimates of prevalence in the United States exist, according to NIDA.

Chewing khat leaves is reported to induce a state of euphoria and elation as well as feelings of increased alertness and arousal. The effects begin to subside after about 90 minutes to 3 hours, but can last 24 hours. At the end of a khat session, the user may experience a depressed mood, irritability, loss of appetite, and difficulty sleeping.

In addition to its psychological effects, khat users can also experience physiological effects typically produced by stimulants, including an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, according to NIDA.

There are a number of adverse physical effects that have been associated with heavy or long-term use of khat, including tooth decay and periodontal disease; gastrointestinal disorders such as constipation, ulcers, inflammation of the stomach, and increased risk of upper gastrointestinal tumors; and cardiovascular disorders such as irregular heart-beat, decreased blood flow, and heart attack, according to NIDA

There is also consistent epidemiologic evidence for a weak association between chronic khat use and mental disorders. Although there is no evidence that khat use causes mental illness, chewing khat leaves may worsen symptoms in patients who have pre-existing psychiatric conditions.

This article first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished with permission.