Every couple of days London’s Heathrow Airport receives a strange cargo. Bundles and bundles of shrub wrapped in banana leaves arriving on planes from Yemen and East Africa. This is qat - a mild narcotic, which after years of wrangling, is still legal in the UK.
Users gather in groups across the country every afternoon to chew the freshly harvested bush. As the men sit - qat-chewing is a very male affair - munching, talking and drinking tea, the leaves release a stimulant that has been compared to alcohol or cannabis.
The drug is illegal in the US, Canada, parts of Europe and many Arab countries, and over the past few months, calls have been growing for it to be criminalised in the UK too.
One of the members of parliament voicing her concern is Labour politician Kerry McCarthy.
"A significant number of people in the Somali community tell me they think it ought to be banned because of its effect on families," she told Aljazeera.net.
McCarthy says most of the pressure for a ban is coming from Somali women.
Abdul Razaq Alsowmly is a London-based doctor who was born in Yemen. He says he understands why women are so set against qat. "Chewers are complaining of a reduced libido – it's one of the reasons there are family problems ... the person who is chewing qat doesn’t sleep well, he is not a calm person," he says.
But Najla Abu-Taleb, a Yemeni project manager living in London, does not see qat as an exclusively male problem.
"A woman that we know, her life revolves around Saturday when she's going to have qat with her friends; to her it's the only social outlet. I think that's dangerous because you’re excluding yourself further from the wider community," she says.
A survey carried out by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs found that almost half of Britain’s Somalis want the drug banned, but Abu-Taleb does not think the Yemeni community is hurt by its consumption.
Agricultural land is being used
for growing qat in Yemen
"[Somali] consumption of qat is not as grown-up as it is in the Yemeni community. I think that might be by virtue of their relatively new community in the UK, therefore they’re still replicating the same patterns as back home."
I joined a qat-chewing session one January afternoon. As the hours passed, the men’s talk became gradually less coherent. But it was keeping them out of bars and clubs, and away from "real" drugs, they insisted.
The night wore on and the chewing continued. For the young Yemeni men sitting cross-legged on the floor, it is an almost daily ritual. These passionate qat-aficionados refused to accept that the drug had any downsides – except when some farmers spray their crop with pesticides which, it is claimed, can cause mouth cancer.
But Dr Alsowmly says that is not the only problem. Chewers sometimes suffer from spontaneous ejaculation and they can lose control of their bladder. Users complain of depression and withdrawal symptoms when their qat session comes to an end.
Qat-chewers have been compared to alcoholics, but McCarthy insists the problem is much worse: "If you go for a few drinks, it doesn't stop you going into work the next day. But with qat, people chew for hours, so it does have that impact on people holding-down jobs."
"With qat, people chew for hours, so it does have that impact on people holding-down jobs"
Abdul Razaq Alsowmly,
It hurts users, but it also hurts Yemen, according to Abu-Taleb. She says farmers in the Arab world's poorest country are choosing to grow the drug instead of food.
"There's a lot of fertile ground in Yemen. When I was on a seven-hour drive from Sanaa to Aden, every green patch we saw was qat because it provides more funds for the growers," she says.
"If you have a proper agricultural policy, it will encourage the growth of coffee and fruit and sustain the country as a whole rather than the need to import food."
The qat trade
Centuries ago Yemen produced nearly all of the world's coffee - mocha is named after the Red Sea port it was shipped from. But that was before qat. Now a large proportion of the country's economy is propped up by the qat trade.
Back in the UK, the Government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs did not accept the concerns of doctors, politicians and qat-wives. They were worried that if the drug was criminalised, the qat trade would be driven underground, and users could be exploited by criminal gangs. In the US, where qat is illegal, one kilogramme of the shrub can cost $400. In the UK, users pay $25.
Qat sessions can last for hours
If proof that users will resort to desperate measures or pay any price is needed, the 1993 qat shortage provides some evidence.
One London-based qat dealer had Somalis knocking on his door late at night pleading for his green gold. He went into his garden, pulled some branches from his hedge and sold it to the hungry men. They stuffed it into their mouths and breathed a sigh of relief. Their only complaint – it was a bit bitter.