Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs asked to evaluate stimulant used by several ethnic communities around UK
Home Office ministers have asked the government’s official drug experts to consider placing restrictions on the use of qat, a plant that is widely used in Britain’s Somali, Ethiopian and Yemeni communities for its stimulant effects.
New Home Office research published today confirms that chewing qat leaves is widespread in all three communities and considered to be a normal, socially accepted practice. The study says Yemenis in particular regard it as an important part of their culture and tradition.
The latest study however reports concern in all three communities over problems involving a minority of heavy qat users and fuelling demands for restrictions on its import and sales, better access to treatment and in some cases, demands for a total ban.
The decision to refer qat to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs follows a pledge two years ago by Sayeedi Warsi, now the Conservative party chairman, that a future Tory government would ban the currently legal drug on the grounds that it was an “unacceptable cultural practice”.
A 2005 Home Office study said that 6 tonnes of qat leaves and stems were flown into Heathrow airport every Friday. The bulk of the consignment, which has a very short shelf life, was sent on by air for sale in the US. The strength of the active ingredients in qat starts to decline 36 hours after picking.
Qat is sold in bundles of 250g of dried leaves and stems wrapped in banana leaves for about £3-£5. A chewing session, traditionally a male-only activity, can last up to six hours and can produce a mild state of euphoria and excitement.
Qat is grown mainly in east Africa and the Middle East and its use is thought to involve over 50% of Somali men in Britain, although the percentage who use it every day is much lower and probably in single figures.
The latest study says that although the main users are mature men there is also evidence of increasing use among women and young people as well. It is chewed mostly at home or in a “mafresh” or qat house – often used when watching football or getting together with friends for an evening. Frequent all-nighters were associated with problem users.
There is still however a taboo against women chewing qat in public and it is not socially acceptable for them to admit they use it. It is sold in grocery shops, restaurants, and even directly at car boot sales.
The Home Office says there is limited evidence of the use of qat by people from other ethnic backgrounds, mainly involving those who socialise with Somalis or Yemenis.
People in all three communities raised concerns that heavy qat use could lead to loss of teeth and other oral problems, problems of keeping a job, and generate friction within families.
James Brokenshire, crime prevention minister, said: “This report provides further helpful insight into the use of qat. We have passed this on to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and have asked them to consider all the available evidence on this substance. We will await their advice.”