Unparalleled amounts of time and resources are devoted to chewing Qat (pronounced Cot), a leaf containing a near-amphetamine stimulant. Qat is the largest single source of rural income and a major source of employment. Its cultivation occupies a significant proportion of agricultural lands. In terms of consumption, it represents a major part of average family expenditure. While being considered a narcotic drug in most Arab and European countries (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, France and Germany), there is no legislation controlling the cultivation and sale of qat leaves (Cathaedulis) in Yemen. Some 72% of Yemeni men and 33% of women above the age of 12 consume the stimulant. 42% of male consumers chew the bitter leaves five to seven days per week and display compulsive habits.
Khat (Catha edulis) -- also known as African salad, bushman's tea, gat, kat, miraa, qat, chat, tohai, and tschat--is a flowering shrub native to northeast Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The plant usually grows from 2 to 12 feet high; however, it can reach 20 feet. Khat plants typically are grown among crops such as coffee, legumes, peaches, or papayas. Fresh khat leaves contain cathinone--a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act; however, the leaves typically begin to deteriorate after 48 hours, causing the chemical composition of the plant to break down. Once this occurs, the leaves contain cathine, a Schedule IV drug. Fresh khat leaves are glossy and crimson-brown in color, resembling withered basil. Deteriorating khat leaves are leathery and turn yellow-green in color.
Drugs classified as Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act are those deemed to have a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision. Schedule IV drugs are classified as having a low potential for abuse and a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States; abuse of Schedule IV drugs may lead to limited physical or psychological dependence.
Many Muslims use khat during the religious month of Ramadan. The use of khat is accepted within the Somali, Ethiopian, and Yemeni cultures. In these countries khat is not a controlled substance and is openly sold at markets. Many immigrants from these countries continue to use khat in the United States. As such, khat frequently is advertised openly on signs in ethnic restaurants, bars, grocery stores, and smoke shops. Signs often are printed in the native language of the store owner. Common names for khat that may appear on such signs include kat, qat, chat, gat, tohai, tschat, and mirraa. Khat generally sells for $300 to $400 per kilogram or $28 to $50 per bundle (40 leafed twigs measuring 12 to 15 inches in length).
Khat typically is ingested by chewing the leaves--as is done with loose tobacco. Dried khat leaves can be brewed in tea or cooked and added to food. After ingesting khat, the user experiences an immediate increase in blood pressure and heart rate. Abusers claim that the drug lifts spirits, sharpens thinking, and increases energy--effects similar to but less intense than those caused by abusing cocaine or methamphetamine. The effects of the drug generally begin to subside between 90 minutes and 3 hours after ingestion; however, they can last up to 24 hours. A state of mild depression can follow periods of prolonged use. Taken in excess, khat causes extreme thirst, a sense of exhilaration, talkativeness, hyperactivity, wakefulness, and loss of appetite. Repeated use can cause manic behavior with grandiose delusions, paranoia, and hallucinations. It also can cause damage to the nervous, respiratory, circulatory, and digestive systems.
The plant is intensively grown in Yemen's western highlands and the 'Asir mountains of Saudi Arabia. Across the Red Sea it is found in many of Eastern Africa's highlands, ranging from the southern Sudan to Madagascar and the Transvaal. The hardy tree that is famed by farmers for its drought resistance, is grown on 12 %of Yemen's agricultural area and its cultivation covered 121,000 hectares in 2003, though some Yemeni researchers believe the actual figure may be double this.
Qat accounts for 10% of the country's GDP, for a third of agricultural GDP, and for 10.5% of household expenditures. In poor families qat related spending even reaches 28% of the family budget. The qat sector provides employment for one in every seven working Yemenis. In the capital Sanaa alone some 13,000 persons are involved in the sale of qat. As the predominant cash crop, the income qat generates plays a vital role in rural economies and prevents people in many of Yemen's highland areas from drifting into the cities in order to seek work.
But qat also depletes scarce water resources, contributes to soil degradation, and has crowded out production of essential food crops and agricultural exports. Qat consumption and qat-related expenditure also contributes to poverty, malnutrition and the disintegration of families. For its producers and consumers alike, qat is seen as one of the main health hazards in Yemen, mainly due to the unregulated use of pesticides.
Given the economic importance of qat, it is not surprising that taxes stemming from the production and sale of the plant aresubstantial and constitute the main local revenue source of governorate and district administrations. Qat sales tax in 2005 amounted to 2 billion Yemeni Riyals (US $ 11 million).
Over the past decades the Yemeni Government has been for the most part passive concerning qat. The few exceptions did not bear fruit due to the massive resistance met from qat cultivators and consumers. An anti-qat initiative launched by Prime Minister Muhsin al-'Ayni in 1972 led to his downfall a few months later. A law passed in 2002 proscribing the chewing in government facilities is largely ignored and some government building as Sanaa's Central Statistical Organization even have a mafraj, a room consecrated to the sole purpose of chewing. Many ministerial afternoon work sessions are thus held within a qat setting.
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