Qat in America [Archives:1998/02/Health]

January 12 1998

By: Shaker Al-Ashwal Vice President of the Yemeni American League*
The Washington Post reported that a Yemeni was arrested after receiving a package containing 90 pounds of qat. The person was charged with possession with the intent to distribute qat, which is a felony in the U.S. Qat has made it to the U.S. after having been confined in its region of origin for centuries. Qat, known in the scientific literature as (Catha edulis), is a plant that originated in Ethiopia and spread to neighboring African countries and south Arabia. It is now believed that qat made it to Yemen before coffee. The seedless plant which best grows at 3000 to 6000 feet above sea level and reaches a height of 20 feet (5-8ft in Yemen), has become an important part of the social life in the region. The fact that the plant is seedless may explain its limitation to Yemen and nearby African countries. (Luqman, 1976). Qat is considered a thirsty plant, but during droughts it grows when other crops fail. The leaves of this plant can be harvested throughout the year. These characteristics plus its stimulant- euphoric effect combine to make qat a very popular plant. The international community was introduced to qat in 1935 by two technical reports which were discussed by the league of Nations’ Advisory Committee on the Traffic of Drugs. A UN commission later conducted its own investigation in 1971 and analyzed the chemical composition of qat.
Qat’s Composition Fluckiger and Geroc were the first to analyze qat in 1987. Subsequent research identified five fractions, namely cathine, cathinine [cathonine] cathidine, edulin, and ephedrine (Luqman, 1976). Qat also contains other ingredients, but the most active ingredients are cathine and cathonine. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has classified Cathine as schedule IV, while Cathonine was classified as schedule I (the most restrictive category used by the DEA). Cathonine however is only present in freshly picked leaves; after 48 hours cathonine changes to cathine.
Qat’s effect The principal features of the qat experience are increases a) in the level of alertness, b) in the ability to concentrate, c) in confidence, friendliness, contentment and flow of ideas (Kennedy, 1987). Consult the bibliography for a more detailed clarification on the effect of qat on the human body and its organs’ functions. But for immigrant communities and for the Yemenis in particular qat is a reminder of home.
A Social Phenomenon Qat which is chewed like tobacco is used in company, but may be used by individuals. The habit has a deep rooted social and cultural tradition in Yemen. Yemenis have used qat as a means to enhance their work habits, but more importantly it has become the magnet around which the members of the community gather to discuss their issues, and sometimes conflicts. In Yemen, many would go out of their way to advocate the use of qat citing the benefits which are centered around its social effect. More than 85% of the adults in Yemen use it, and an increasing number of young Yemenis use it too. Chewing qat in Yemen is part of the daily routine, and in the United States, some affluent Yemenis buy enough to chew daily. In the U.S. it is used for similar reasons and for other reasons, that will be discussed below.
An Expensive Habit In both the United States and Yemen qat is an expensive habit. In Aden in 1955, it was estimated that Yemenis spent about 40 million shillings (five million dollars) on qat. The qat was flown to Aden from Ethiopia daily by air. (Luqman, 1976). Today hundreds of millions of Riyals are spent on qat and is causing many social and economical problems. All of the qat is grown in Yemen and much of Yemen’s fertile land is used to grow qat, costing the economy a great deal. Today qat is still expensive, and is costing the individual Yemeni and the government a great deal. For Yemenis in the U.S., a bundle of qat sells for $30-35.
Importation and Smuggling of Qat Though it is currently legal to import qat into great Britain and several other countries, in the U.S. qat is considered illegal, and qat possession is a felony. Qat is smuggled to the U.S. as a recreational drug by the use of couriers. It has entered the U.S. under many names i.e. Absyssinian tea, African salad, Arabian tea, and Molokheya (Egyptian vegetable). Today qat is packaged as part of flower shipments and by other methods. Because of the long journey Qat is wrapped in banana leaves to retain its moisture and freshness. Water is often sprinkled over it (during transport) to keep the leaves moist. Generally there are two varieties that come to the U.S. Ethiopian, known as Habashi, and Kenyan, known as Yemeni. These two varieties are sold in Yemeni and African restaurants and some have reported buying them from Jewish flower shops. The bundles of qat which are made of about 20-30 twigs, 12-16 inch in length are sold for $30 in New York, the price can vary in other states and they can be sold for up to $40. New York seems to be the base for the distribution of qat. Though the smuggling operations were dominated by non-Yemenis in the past, more Yemenis are becoming involved in the smuggling of qat to the U.S..
A Profitable Enterprise The selling of qat is proving very profitable and qat sellers make up to a 200% profit. The profitability of this trade can be understood when one considers the amount of qat smuggled into the U.S. and its price. According to sellers of qat in New York, they receive about 1000 bundles of qat on Tuesday and another 1000 arrive on Friday, making the total amount of qat smuggled into the U.S. at least two thousand bundles. It is estimated that 1000 bundles are sold in New York City, and the rest is sent to Buffalo, Detroit, California, and other locations. Since there are 2000 bundles that arrive to the U.S. weekly, our community spends about $60,000 on qat weekly. A simple calculation would show that the Yemeni American community in the U.S. spends about $3,120,000 a year on qat. Using the current exchange rate of $1=130 Riyal, the Yemeni community in the U.S., spends at least half a billion Yemeni Riyals (405,600,000 Riyals).
Qat & US Law Generally, law enforcement efforts directed against qat in the U.S. have been minimal so far. This is due to the fact that many doubt that it will become a popular street drug. In areas where there are a lot of Yemenis, e.g. Buffalo and Detroit, the authorities are very strict and impose up to a 3 months imprisonment term for qat possession or sale. Americans are increasingly using a synthetic form of qat’s most active ingredient, cathonine. Growing the plant is still legal in the U.S. and it was reported that in California some Yemenis have managed to grow it in their backyards. It is unfortunate that a habit we are all struggling to get rid of in the homeland is following us to our communities outside of Yemen. Many immigrants in the past considered migration an escape from qat and its bad effects, and saught in their places of migration to improve their health away from the green leaf. Because leaving the habit doesn’t cause withdrawal symptoms, it was easy for people to leave it behind them and lead healthier lives in their new places of residence and work. The ease of importing qat to Britain and smuggling it to the U.S. has led to the widespread use of qat amongst the Yemeni immigrant communities.
Why in America? In Yemen, one can argue in favor of using qat? One of the arguments is that one uses it to meet people, socialize, communicate issues and problems. In the U.S. the Yemeni immigrants are using qat for several reasons. The motive depends on the status of the qat chewer. A business owner who can afford the time, chews qat to socialize with his peers and friends. While a Yemeni worker may use qat hoping that qat will carry him home even for a very short imaginative visit. Some affluent Yemenis have designed rooms in their houses as diwans (Yemeni style). These rooms have been designed especially for chewing qat. When you enter these “diwans” you immediately forget that you are in America. The water pipes and the Yemeni-furnishing style add to that feeling of being in Yemen. Regardless of the place where a person chews qat, the person’s look the following day, reveals it. Sleepless eyes and tired looks usually give away the person who chewed qat the night before. Many of them have to resume work the following day without rest, looking like they are possessed by evil spirits. With their minds in Yemen, many Yemeni workers deal with a lot of problems and family pressure, in addition to that they also deal with problems related to their migratory experiences. Many are resistant to acculturation and assimilation and are in a state of depression. For those people, qat is a temporary way out of the U.S., a chance for a short mental visit home, and a reminder of good times in Yemen. The busy schedules of Yemenis also make the qat a social magnet that gathers people to meet around it. Interestingly, many Yemeni celebrations in the U.S. are not complete without qat today.
It seems like we Yemenis are interested in short term solutions or escapes from our problems. Qat is becoming popular in the U.S. amongst Yemenis because it is the familiar way of dealing with our problems. Even social problems these days are only debated and solved in qat sessions. Community organizations have to get involved with law enforcement agencies to try prevent the spread of this disease in our community. _______________
References * Baasher. T. A. (1980). The use of qat: a stimulant with regional distribution. In Drug Problems in the Sociocultural Context – A Basis for Policies and Programme Planning (ea. G. Edwards & A. Arif), pp. 86-93. World Health Organization: Geneva. * Kalix, P. (1987). Qat: scientific knowledge and policy issues. British Journal of Addiction 82, 47-53. * Kennedy, J. G., Teague, J., Rokaw, W. & Cooney, E. (1983). A medical evaluation of the use of qat in North Yemen. Society Science and Medicine 17, 783-793. * Kennedy, J. G. (1987). The Flower of Paradise – The Institutionalized Use of the Drug Qat In North Yemen. D. Reidel: Dordrecht. * Luqman, W. & Danowski, T. S. (1976). The use of qat (Catha edulis) in Yemen: Social and medical observations. Annals of Internal Medicine 85, 246 249. * Pantelis, C, Hindler, C., Taylor J.C. (1989). Use and abuse of qat (Cathaedulis): a review of the distribution, pharmacology, side effects and a description of psychosis attributed to qat chewing. Psychological Medicine, vol. 19: 657-668. * The Yemeni American League (YAL) is an organization for college students and graduates that include professionals and prominent, educated Yemenis in the U.S. It was formed in 1995, and is based in New York. The YAL is a proud sponsor of more than 50 pages on Yemen that are published on the Internet.