Opinion: Qat-chewing

POSTED: 11/23/11 6:46 AM

The Dutch Parliament has found another drug that needs to be prohibited: qat. It is popular among Somalis and other denizens from the Middle East, but the Christian democratic CDA holds that chewing qat results in high numbers of school dropout and in unemployment. We’re always interested in such blanket statements, so we looked up what experts have to say about these interesting little green leaves.
We found an article by Nageeb Hassan, Abdullah Gunaid and Iain Murray-Lyon on the web site of the British-Yemeni Society. We’ll save you the 3,000 words they spent on the subject and we’ll stick to the highlights.
Nageeb Hassan is Professor of Clinical Pharmacology in the Faculty of Medicine, University of Sana ‘a, and obtained his PhD from the University of Manchester . Professor Abdullah Gunaid, also from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Sana’a , is a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and international adviser for Yemen to the RCP. Dr Murray-Lyon is Honorary Consultant Physician to the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London.
While Christian Democrats in The Hague seem to think that chewing qat results in school dropout and unemployment, the paper the three scientists published states exactly the opposite. They concede that qat plant leaves contain alkaloids that are structurally related to amphetamine, but they say that chewing the leaves gives “a pleasant mild stimulant action.”
These effects, the scientists write, “Are commonly believed to improve work capacity.” The leaves are used on journeys and by students preparing for examinations and to counteract fatigue. But that’s apparently not enough to make qat palatable for Dutch politicians. In the United Kingdom, by the way, qat is free and legally available.
Cathinone, the main active ingredient in qat leaves is similar to amphetamine, the scientists write. Does that make qat a hard drug? Supporters of qat-chewing claim that it is useful in diabetic patients because it lowers blood glucose; it also acts as a remedy for asthma, and it eases the symptoms of intestinal tract disorders.
There are also opponents to qat-chewing, and they claim that it damages people’s health and that it has negative social, economic and medical effects. “In Yemen this has become a problem of grave national concern and we have reviewed the evidence for an adverse health impact,” the scientists wrote.
So what exactly do qat-chewers experience? According to the three scientists it comes down to “a moderate degree of euphoria and mild excitement resulting in promotion of social interaction and loquacity.”
Loquacity means that qat-chewers become excessively talkative – a bit like some politicians actually. There is more: “While attaining a subjective state of well being, the chewers feel an increase in alertness and energy together with enhanced depth of perception. These effects were found to be a maximum between 1.5 – 3.5 hours after starting to chew and they were progressively replaced by mild dysphoria, anxiety, reactive depression, insomnia and anorexia (loss of appetite).”
It seems therefore fair to say that qat is a great upper, but that it also has serious downsides. The scientists mention qat-induced psychosis. Qat chewing also seems to complicate the management of pre-existing serious mental illness. Research showed that qat chewing psychotic patients experience mood swings, display delusional symptoms and respond less to anti-psychotic therapy.
The World Health Organization has not qualified qat ad an addictive drug and established that withdrawal symptoms are mild.
There is a lot more to say about qat and its effect on users; for a full review we refer to the article on the web site of the British-Yemeni Society: www.al-bab.com/bys/articles/hassan05.htm.
But will a qat-prohibition as the CDA proposes do any good, or have any effect? We doubt that very much. If qat becomes illegal it won’t make its users go away. On the contrary, it will become more complicated for qat-junkies to get their fix. The substance will simply become interesting for criminal organizations. The price will go up, profits will be made, and law enforcement will have a new war on drugs on its hands.
It seems cheaper to leave things as they are and to call on people’s individual responsibility. It is more useful to set up an information campaign that explains the pros and cons of qat-chewing, than to make the substance illegal. It didn’t work with alcohol in the United States in the beginning of last century, it didn’t work with marijuana, and it doesn’t work with all the hard drugs and party drugs that are freely available to everybody who wants them. Illegal or not.

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