Khat, pronounced like “cot,” is a flowering plant native to East Africa. The plant is a powerful stimulant that has been used for centuries in Africa and the Middle East. The leaves of the plant are chewed or, less frequently, dried and used in a tea to produce a state of euphoria and stimulation.
Practical uses (although not legal) of the drug include fighting physical fatigue among workers or for increased alertness by drivers and students. However, the predominant use of khat is recreational.
On the street, khat is known as “Abyssinian Tea,” “African Salad,” “Catha,” “Chat, Kat,” and “Oat.”
What Are the Effects of Khat?
Chewing khat leaves or drinking khat tea causes stimulation, excitement, and a mildly euphoric feeling. The effects have been compared to a mild version of the effects associated with cocaine. Khat immediately increases blood pressure and heart rate. Effects typically last for about 1 to 3 hours.
The consequences of khat use can include insomnia, loss of appetite, and mild depression. More serious side effects can include heart disease, mouth cancer, and high blood pressure. There is no known physical addiction associated with khat, but a person can develop psychological dependence.
In addition, there have been reports of liver damage and myocardial infarctions among users of khat. These consequences are most likely among people who have used khat long-term or who have consumed too much at one time.
Is Khat Illegal?
The legal status of khat is that it is illegal under federal and state laws as a controlled substance. Fresh khat leaves, those picked within 48 hours, contain cathinone, a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
Around 48 hours after picking, the chemical composition of khat leaves breaks down, leaving cathine, which is considered a schedule IV stimulant under the CSA. Flakka, a synthetic version of khat, is also illegal.
There is no currently accepted medical use in the United States, and no measure of what amount of use might be safe under medical supervision.
What About Khat Used for Religious Purposes?
No case involving religious use of Khat has been heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, in 2006, the Court held that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, the government must demonstrate a compelling interest in banning a drug used in a sincere exercise of religion. Under this ruling, it is likely that the Court would allow the use of khat in sincere exercises of religion.
What Happens if You Get Caught With Khat?
The exact legal status of khat depends on whether a person is involved with federal law or state law.
At issue in a case of federal possession of khat is the difference between possession of a Schedule 1 controlled substance and possession of a Schedule IV controlled substance. Under federal law, possession of a Schedule I controlled substance is a class I felony regardless of the amount possessed. Cathinone is the Schedule I substance in khat.
Possession of a Schedule IV controlled substance is a class 1 misdemeanor under federal law. Cathine is the Schedule IV substance in khat.
So whether the prosecution can prove that the khat a person had contained cathinone or cathine will be the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor criminal offense in cases that involve the possession of khat.
If the khat was tested at the time close to the time when a person possessed the khat and showed the presence of cathinone, then the person could be charged with felony possession.
Or a prosecutor may have other evidence that the khat was growing or freshly harvested, which would allow them to charge the person in possession with a felony.
There could be an instance where the khat is not tested at a time when it shows the presence of cathinone or was not growing or freshly harvested. In that case, the person who possessed the khat would likely be charged with only a misdemeanor possession of the Schedule IV substance.
Usually, in either case, the prosecution would have to produce a reliable chemical analysis to prove criminal conduct, and that could be challenging. The punishment for possession of cathinone or cathine under federal law would depend on a number of factors. However, imprisonment and payment of a fine are likely elements of any sentence.
As is the case with any kind of criminal offense, the exact definition of a crime and the punishment depends on the law of the state in which the offense is committed. All states identify controlled substances, as does the federal government, and they all regulate the possession of controlled substances.
Again, however, each state has its own exact definitions and punishments for drug possession. For example, Missouri bans possession of the plant itself, khat including all parts of the plant, whether it is growing or not, plus the seeds and extracts of any part of the plant and “every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of the plant, its seed or extracts.”
In California, the plant khat and its active component, cathinone, are illegal. Possession of khat is a misdemeanor criminal offense in California. The punishment for conviction is up to 1 year in county jail and payment of a fine of $1,000. If it can be proven that a person possessed the leaf with the intent to sell it, they can be charged with a felony. The punishment for conviction is a maximum of 3 years in state prison.
Can I Be Charged With Driving While Impaired for Using Khat and Driving?
Presumably, a person could be charged with driving while impaired (DWI) or driving under the influence (DUI). Of course, there are differences in how these offenses are defined in different states.
Some states use different terminology for the crime of driving while intoxicated by alcohol or drugs, e.g., Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Wisconsin. These states use the “operating under the influence” (OUI) and “operating while intoxicated” (OWI) terminology for the offense of drunk driving or driving while impaired by or under the influence of a drug.
In a state that has two offenses, i.e., both DWI and DUI, DWI may be a more serious criminal offense. The offense of DUI could involve a driver who was driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. It is important to note that the drugs do not need to be illegal or classified as controlled substances.
Prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications can also lead to a DUI or DWI charge if the person’s driving is impaired as a result of taking them. A person may be charged with DUI even if their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is below the legal limit, .08% in most states, but law enforcement observes their driving to be impaired.
Because khat contains two controlled substances, driving while impaired by khat could get a person arrested for DUI or DWI, depending on the exact definitions of these offenses in a given state. Science journals report that there are chemical tests that can detect cathine and cathinone, the controlled substances in khat, in a person’s urine.
So, it appears that a person could be arrested for DUI or DWI if their driving were to be impaired by their use of khat.
Do I Need a Lawyer for My Criminal Khat Issue?
If you have been charged with a drug crime under the Controlled Substances Act, such as possession or sale of khat, you should contact a drug attorney immediately.
LegalMatch.com can quickly connect you to a lawyer who can explain your rights under the law and identify any defenses that may be available to you. Your lawyer can represent you in negotiations with the prosecution and defend you at trial if that should be required.