Chewing qat hooks teen thrill seekers

A bunch of qat leaves can be bought for just £3. Now children as young as 14 are becoming addicted to the drug
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Behind an ordinary black front door on a main road in north London, a dozen or so Somali men of varying ages are sitting on cushions arranged on the floor of a small, unfurnished living room. There is a television in the corner and in front of the men are bags filled with the dark green leaves of the qat plant. Welcome to a typical qat "pub".

Behind an ordinary black front door on a main road in north London, a dozen or so Somali men of varying ages are sitting on cushions arranged on the floor of a small, unfurnished living room. There is a television in the corner and in front of the men are bags filled with the dark green leaves of the qat plant. Welcome to a typical qat "pub".

Qat is a narcotic plant, a natural amphetamine which can cause depression, paranoia and mouth cancer. It has been banned abroad – in the US, qat is classified in the same category as heroin and cocaine – but is legally sold in the UK for around £3 a bunch. An estimated 90 per cent of men in Britain's Somali community commonly chew the leaves.

But the appeal of qat is spreading. Drugs workers are receiving reports of women and even children as young as 14 becoming addicted to the narcotic.

So concerned have drugs charities become in recent months that they are now warning that qat addiction may reach the same levels as crack cocaine abuse. It has prompted the Home Office to consider, for the first time, a national drugs strategy to regulate qat and curb itsuse.

The Government, urged by drugs charities including Turning Point, is looking at funding pilot projects to wean users off the drug. These projects would include qat support groups where addicts can share their problems, such as poverty and social deprivation, with trained counsellors, as well as special qat-free cafés.

However, imports of the drug into the UK have soared to meet the demand. Figures released by Customs and Excise reveal that up to seven tons of the drug are imported into the UK every week.

An estimated 80 per cent of the Somali community are unemployed, leaving many with little to do and vulnerable to problematic qat use.

But the views of the community are divided on how harmful the drug actually is. Many argue it has been entrenched in African culture for as long as alcohol has been in the West, and comes with the same dangers and benefits.

"There is a name in Arabic for qat which means 'the food of the saints'," said Ibrahim Suleiman, 49, who has lived in the UK for 32 years. We are standing in what amounts to a qat "pub" in the front room of a disused shop in Kentish Town, north London. It is sandwiched between a newsagent and a kebab shop. Mr Suleiman continued: "It was used by the scholars of the Koran so they could remain alert and awake and concentrate."

In Mr Suleiman's opinion, qat should not be regulated. He says it is no more addictive than tea or coffee, stays in the body only for a couple of weeks and is an integral part of Islamic culture.

"In Islam we do not drink, but qat operates very much like alcohol," he said.

"It lubricates people socially. It's very much like drinking: if you use it excessively its effects are exaggerated. It can make you hyperactive. If you use it modestly then it can be beneficial, such as to help you socialise and keep you alert."

Further down the road, at another qat "den", Abdul Mahmoud, a man in his 20s, disagrees. He has just given up qat altogether. "I'd prefer it to be illegal," he said adamantly. "It's like drinking over the limit. I gave it up for good two weeks ago."

Qat use is not just a feature of the Muslim community. A former student of Manchester University says there was a qat craze there in the 1990s.

"It was the post-ecstasy generation looking for the next high," he said.

"Somebody got hold of some and then before you knew it everyone was trying it. It was just a fad, though, and didn't really catch on. The taste was too bitter."

The Independent on Sunday bought a bunch of qat for £3. It was grown in Ethiopia and said to be a mild form of the plant. A bunch contains 20 or so soft twigs wrapped in leaves and tissue to keep them moist. To take qat, you break off the stem and place the leafy part in the side of the mouth and chew. It is rude to place too much in the mouth so the cheek bulges, and swallowing should be avoided as it swells in the stomach.

The plant has an intensely bitter and acrid taste and generates lots of saliva. To counteract the taste, users drink cups of sweet, black tea.

Lord Adebowale, chief executive of Turning Point, said that banning the drug was not a solution. Instead, he said that the social issues that influence people to use qat must be addressed.

"Like crack, we need this to be caught early," he said. "We know there is a link between drug use and unemployment. We need an appropriate strategy to deal with qat."

Comments