Incuriosity killed the qat - Is qat the next drug to be banned in Britain?

By Expat98 · Jun 20, 2008 · ·
  1. Expat98
    Incuriosity killed the qat

    It's dangerous, addictive and should be banned, according to Sayeeda Warsi. But has she bothered to do her research?

    Brian Whitaker,
    Monday June 16, 2008

    It didn't last long. Just a few days after David Davis launched his campaign against the "slow strangulation" of Britain's "fundamental freedoms", along comes Sayeeda Warsi, shadow minister for community cohesion, to do the opposite. In fact it's worse than that, because what she proposes is an attack on freedom specifically targeted at several of Britain's smaller ethnic minorities.

    In an article on Cif yesterday she announced that the next Conservative government will ban qat (also known as "khat" or "chat" or, for the botanically-minded, catha edulis).

    Qat is a leaf that has been chewed for centuries in Yemen and parts of east Africa, plus Saudi Arabia (where, Baroness Warsi will be pleased to hear, it's also banned; in fact, people occasionally get their head chopped off for possessing it).

    More recently, Yemenis, Somalis and others who settled in Britain have brought the practice here and qat is sold openly - and legally - by corner shops in their communities. Its use is almost entirely confined to these communities and it is unlikely ever to become a fashionable club drug - it's bulky, it has to be consumed when as fresh as possible, it smells like a privet hedge and it leaves your teeth and tongue covered in green bits.

    When chewing qat, you nip the leaves off the stalk and crush them between your teeth. Expert chewers don't swallow: they build up a wad in their mouth, slowly absorbing the juices, until it looks as if they have a golf ball stuffed inside their cheek. After an hour or so you have lift-off, and it's a slow, gentle, wide-eyed high that lasts for hours. You feel (and actually are) totally alert and thoughts flow easily - which is why so many Yemeni students chew qat at exam time and swear by its effectiveness.

    Yemeni society revolves around qat in the same way the EastEnders revolves around the Queen Vic. After lunch the men sit around on cushions and chew in a smoke-filled room (the windows must be closed because according to legend you can catch your death from a cold draught while chewing). It goes on till sunset and they talk, mainly, about, politics and how to set the world to rights - a bit like a Cif discussion thread really, but more coherent.

    In Yemen, qat is as much a national institution as tea in Britain or wine in France. This poses a dilemma for the more strait-laced foreign diplomats and business visitors. The British embassy in Sana'a once received a stern note from its masters in London warning of the prevalence of qat, and of the damage to Britain's reputation that might result if any of the embassy staff were tempted to indulge in it. The message arrived while the ambassador was out - chewing with the Yemeni prime minister.

    In her article, Warsi talks as if it's only men who chew qat, but in Yemen women chew too, though in separate rooms. I don't know what goes on there but a female friend told me rather mysteriously that all-women chewing sessions can become remarkably intimate.

    Contrary to what Warsi says in her article, there's no real evidence that qat is chemically addictive, though people can become psychologically dependent. In that respect it's similar to cannabis: if it turns into a daily habit you'll miss the drug and the social life that goes with it when you suddenly stop.

    She also states that qat is carcinogenic. A study in Yemen by three senior doctors was more cautious about a connection between long-term qat use and cancer though it did say there was an increased risk of heart attacks among people with high blood pressure. It also expressed concern about health hazards from pesticides used in qat cultivation - since chewers rarely bother to wash the leaves.

    Like alcohol, qat is neither intrinsically bad nor intrinsically good – it all depends on how people use it. Warsi quotes a Somali woman as saying that the menfolk "chew it all night and during the day they can't do anything". Well, yes. That's what happens if you stay up all night, whether you're chewing qat, drinking beer or just watching TV.

    Criminalising qat because large numbers of Somali youths do badly at school and then become unemployed layabouts seems an odd way of tackling the real problem. It also infringes the rights of others in the community who chew sensibly and in the traditional setting. Warsi's arguments about the social ills of qat abuse could be applied just as easily to alcohol, say, or betting shops. Singling out qat for special treatment looks like racial discrimination.

    Before she pursues this any further, I'd urge Sayeeda Warsi to read a couple of books on the subject. One is Shelagh Weir's Qat in Yemen (published by that drug-riddled den of debauchery, the British Museum). The other is Kevin Rushby's qat-fuelled travelogue, Eating the Flowers of Paradise.

    Come to think of it, though, there's no substitute for first-hand research, so I hope she'll take up this invitation to chew over the issue with me and a few friends. Preferably before the next election, while it's still legal.


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  1. Heretic.Ape.
    In the guardian huh? Didn't think they had it in 'em.
  2. FrankenChrist
    The Guardian is one of the better papers for this kind of thing, actually.
  3. Heretic.Ape.
    Oh, my mistake. For some reason I was thinking they were the ones who published all that cannabis makes you go crazy shit but maybe that was the daily mail.
  4. FrankenChrist
    It is possible that they published some of the "cannabis makes you crazy"-articles, however.
  5. Lunar Loops
    Conservatives will ban khat

    The piece reproduced above was actually in response to the following piece, which also appeared in The Guardian:

    Conservatives will ban khat

    Khat is a popular drug among Britain's Somali community but it is far from harmless and should be banned

    Sayeeda Warsi

    The debate about khat (also known as qat) is new to the majority of people in Britain. Khat is a drug which is chewed in leaf form and has its origins in East Africa and parts of the Arabian peninsula. It is said to enhance social interaction and act as a stimulant to improve performance. Traditionally, khat use was an activity for men over a certain age, especially at the end of celebrations such as weddings.
    It is not, however, a benign drug. Like amphetamines, it causes dependency. It is addictive. It can trigger paranoia and hallucinations. It is carcinogenic.
    This drug can be legally bought in Britain with no restriction on the age of the purchaser. About seven tonnes of it are estimated to pass through Heathrow airport alone each week and the leaves are then sold at around £4 for a 250g bunch in supermarkets in East London, Birmingham, Bristol and Sheffield.
    A recent survey found that 76% of respondents use more khat in the UK than in Somalia; in Sheffield, 59% of young Somalis chew khat. Unemployment rates among the Somali community are far above the national average. Academic achievement rates are far below the national average. And khat is in part responsible.
    Faisa Mohamed, from the Somali Well Women Project said, "Back home men were the breadwinners, but when they came to Britain without jobs and took up khat, it became an addiction. They chew it all night and during the day they can't do anything".
    In February 2005 during the passage of the Drugs Act 2005, the government discussed making khat a controlled substance. They heard how it is banned in the USA, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Uganda, Ethiopia and Madagascar, to name but a few.
    The government decided that its use was not prevalent enough among the wider community, and so it remained legal. It is almost inverse racism: they were almost frightened to act because it concerned minority communities, even though many people, especially the women, from within those communities were calling for action.
    This is a drug that is beginning to tear apart the social fabric of certain communities and people from those mainly East African communities are calling for action.
    On Thursday night I spoke to an audience from the Somali community in Brent. I listened to them share their stories of addiction and family breakdown. Abukar told how he spent four years addicted before ending up in hospital recovering from stab wounds. He said, "I see myself as a member of British society. I want to integrate. But then I see how this drug affects our children. I see our women suffering in silence. This is the biggest barrier to integration for us."
    All communities need to be treated equally under the rule of law irrespective of their background and we must never fail to take action on issues like khat because the prevalence of the drug in the UK is relatively low or because it is restricted to some minority communities. When any section of society is under threat, affected or underachieving, we must all stand up. That is why a future Conservative government would legislate to make khat a classified drug.
  6. MrG
    The problems being put forward by the Somali community are nothing to do with Khat and everything to do with culture. The men don't work simply because they dont HAVE to work. The British government does a good line in handouts so these people arrive in a country where suddenly the rules of survival have changed. If they weren't doing Khat they'd still not be arsed to get a job.

    Tell me this, what if a pressure-group of wives of british-born males got together and complained about their husbands excessive drinking? They could easily find some who could tell of violent behaviour, addiction and family suffering.

    Do you think that the political classes would give a flying one? Would they seek to ban this evil substance?

    Didn't think so.
  7. FrankenChrist
    ^^Odd you should say that about the Somali in Europe (but I'm not countering it). Must be the older people among them. I've heard that they are a self-sufficient community.

    Many of them actually left the Netherlands (for the UK*) not because they couldn't integrate or weren't allowed to stay, but because they had trouble with getting their businesses through Dutch government red tape. Apparently the UK is a less troublesome place to start a business.

    *when I was in Birmingham I could have sworn I heard some Dutch speaking black people, later corroborated by what I saw in a tv documentary.

    But in the Horn of Africa and nearby countries, khat is indeed popular.
  8. FuBai
    Out of the 20 recreational drugs evaluated by Prof. Nutt, now chair of the ACMD, the report of which was splashed across the front pages of many a newspaper in March 2007, khat came 20th. This means that not only is it safer than alcohol and tobacco, according to the report, but also safer than MDMA, Cannabis and LSD, some of the least toxic drugs known. Sayeed Warsi's article is of the traditional, prohibitionist, puritanical style that has little creedence in academic evaluations, but, as many other articles of this type do, it has an emotional impact that plays upon the standard prohibitionist emotionality.
  9. Nature Boy
    Prof. Nutt's report is greatly flawed IMO. I can't see the consistency in it. It places drugs like LSD and ecstasy far down the list, even below cannabis, presumably because patterns of use tend to be lower. Then it has barbiturates above alcohol? Drugs shouldn't be judged on a scale of usage patterns unless the drug is physically addictive. It's far more accurate to judge drugs on their lethal capacity, essentially the LD-50s. How can you implement social structuring into this? Sounds like pinning the tail on the donkey.
  10. FuBai
    Actually he used a complex nexus assesment of risk, as detailed in his research. LSD and Ecstacy are lower down the list because they are of very low toxicity, the traditional consumption methods are cleaner than smoking marijuna, which is the main consumption method, they pose less of a risk for anti-social behaviour (although this is not true of LSD, indeed LSD is above MDMA only because of the risk of anti-social behaviour and self-harm whilst under the influence) etc etc. Consumption patterns do have a bearing upon the assesment because the assesment was not harm to individuals alone, but also harm to society. When were are looking at the debate over the legalilty of khat then we are talking about harms to society as well as harms to the individual.
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