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What is “khat” and why are we warned about it?

Khat is a flowering plant that contains cathinone, a natural stimulant. It is native to Ethiopia where chewing the leaves as a social custom dates back thousands of years.

Cathinone’s molecular structure resembles amphetamine which accounts for its mild stimulant effect. Historically, cathinone has not cause much concern, at least not until clandestine chemists began to tinker with its molecular structure, trying to increase its stimulant effect. Attaching a methyl group (consisting of a single carbon atom and three hydrogens) to cathinone turned out to be a simple laboratory procedure. The resulting “methcathinone” was far more potent as a stimulant and found a ready market. Unfortunately, the side effects were also more potent, with methcathinone use sometimes leading to extreme agitation and even psychosis. Furthermore, methcathinone was addictive. But it was also highly profitable. 

Motivated by the possibility of even greater financial success, the underground chemists continued their molecular fiddling, hoping to find an even more potent cathinone derivative. And they found it in 4-mehylmethcathinone, also known as mephedrone, quickly christened on the street as “meow-meow.” Since the substance had never been made before, it wasn’t even illegal, at least not until specific legislation was passed to criminalize it. But declaring a substance to be illegal doesn’t stop its online sales, especially when it is advertised as “plant food” or “research chemical” or “bath salts.” Of course, those “in the know,” are not buying “bath salts” to sprinkle into their bath or “plant food” to fertilize their tomatoes.  They are looking to fertilize their euphoria. 

“Meow meow” is a potentially dangerous drug that can cause overstimulation of the heart, sweating, chills, light-headedness, fits, anxiety and paranoia. Besides the risks attributed to the active ingredient in meow-meow, there is always the possibility of chemical contaminants. Underground chemists who cook up these street drugs in their basements are not overly concerned about impurities, some of which may pose a greater risk than the drug itself. Meowing should be left to cats.


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