Drug use is cyclical -“ particular drugs come into favour and then are replaced by others for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the heroin cycle is the best example of this in Australia. Since the mid-1970s we have seen heroin fall in and out of favour for a period of time each decade. Currently we appear to be seeing a lull in the heroin cycle and replacing it is an increasing interest in the availability of stimulant drugs. This is a worldwide pattern but it would appear that in different parts of the world different stimulants have caught on.

In the UK and Europe they have seen a cocaine epidemic; in the US and here in Australia an increasing amount of crystalline methamphetamine has become available; but in South Africa a different drug has become popular -“ khat, or as it is increasingly being called by partygoers, cat.

Khat is one natural substance which first appeared on the party-drug scene in the UK in the early 90s and although some enterprising people have attempted to import it into Australia, it has never really taken off.
Khat is a plant found in Eastern Africa and the Arab peninsula. The leaves of the khat plant are chewed for their amphetamine-like stimulant effects. The active ingredient in khat is a compound called cathinone, which is closely related to amphetamine and is found in higher concentrations in young leaves. Because cathinone becomes inactive when the leaves dry out, they must be chewed while still fresh to be effective. Due to the short-lived potency of the fresh leaves it is difficult to import the plant into Australia. When Customs locates the plant they simply hold it at the border, thus eliminating its ability to affect potential users.

The effects of khat chewing are similar to those of amphetamine use, and include feelings of elation, euphoria, increased energy and alertness. This is why for a short time it became popular in the nightclub scene in the UK. The early 90s saw an increased interest in natural highs such as guarana, herbal ecstasy and khat. Chemical highs such as speed and ecstasy were not considered as pure as they once were and party drug users were searching for alternatives. Khat is still used in some areas of the UK and is very popular among certain cultures where it has a long history of being used as part of formal social customs. The leaf is chewed until it becomes a green pulp which is then spat out. When the plant became popular, some clubs and rave promoters actually provided spittoons for khat users in which they could spit the green mess.

It appears that the synthetic variant of cathinone -“ methcathinone -“ is the substance that is becoming increasingly popular in South Africa. It is a much more potent stimulant with amphetamine-like actions. In a reprise of the history of cocaine, the mild stimulant properties of chewing khat leaves have been replaced by the most intense high, which is caused by the pure chemical substance.

With the large amount of methamphetamine currently being manufactured across Australia it is highly unlikely that khat will become popular here any time soon, but considering the fickle taste of drug users it will be interesting to see what new fad hits our shores next.

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