QAT - Catha edulis forsk - is a plant containing a stimulant that has been chewed on social occasions in Somalia for centuries, with little ill effect. But its widespread use among the refugee community in Britain has been causing concern; young Somalis often devote 10 hours a day to a habit that would have taken up no more than three or four at home. 'We were very worried by the amounts they were using,' says Abdi Hussein, chairman of the Somali Association in Newham, east London.
Dr John Cookson, of the Royal London Hospital, estimates that 30 Somalis have been admitted to the psychiatric wards there in the last year. He says qat is rarely the sole cause of severe mental illness. 'It is only a minority who make themselves ill. It's like cannabis - most people who use it don't come to any harm, but if you have a schizophrenia-like illness, then you can aggravate it. It depends on the susceptibility of the individual, and the quantities involved.'
Mr Hussein says that of the 7,000 Somalis who have arrived in Newham since 1988, he believes 3,000 are regular qat chewers. Community leaders in Tower Hamlets and Cardiff, where there are also large numbers of Somalis, express similar fears.
Chewing the plant releases the active ingredient, cathinone, which Dr Anthony Dickenson, reader in neuropharmacology at University College, London, compares to a mild amphetamine. It produces a feeling of euphoria, stimulates the heart rate and the blood pressure and suppresses the appetite. 'If the parallels with amphetamines hold, then it might be expected to induce a temporary psychosis,' adds Dr Dickenson.
If used in moderation, many Somalis regard it as a good thing. 'As a Muslim community that is not allowed to drink alcohol, it is a way of sharing happiness with our friends. Unfortunately, it is abused in this country and it has serious effects. When people chew it non-stop, it drains all their energy and keeps them awake for hours and hours,' says Abdillahi Hassan, a mental health worker with Mind in Tower Hamlets.
It is a physical and financial drain on the users as well. 'They tend to eat qat instead of food. The more they eat, the more they get into debt, and the less they have to spare for food. It has taken over the lives of quite a few of the young men,' says Rakiya Omaar, the Somali director of African Rights, a human rights pressure group concerned with problems in the Horn of Africa. She adds that a recent ban in Scandinavia has done 'nothing but good'.
Last February, the Newham Drugs Prevention Team, a Home Office organisation, gave Mr Hussein a pounds 2,000 grant to educate the Somali community to the dangers of excessive qat use. He came, perhaps not surprisingly, to the conclusion that the source of the problem was not qat itself, but the circumstances in which young Somalis find themselves. 'Many have no families, no education, no job, no status. They've come through the trauma of a war, they're frustrated and depressed; they lack entertainment and they need to find an escape. Chewing qat is a temporary relief.'
He has received further funding from the drug prevention team to raise awareness and is planning evenings of Somali music, food and dance - 'culturally relevant' entertainment - as an alternative to endless qat chewing.
Mr Hussein believes that banning qat would be counter-productive, and force young Somalis to move on to other, more harmful, drugs. There are no plans to make it illegal. 'Logically, it should be banned - if you were to isolate the active ingredient, it would be a listed drug,' says Dr Cookson. 'But it's difficult to ban a plant that is sold openly in greengrocers.'
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