A Drug So Powerful It Causes Aggression and Passivity


Reuters reports that anti-government protests in Yemen have been half-hearted compared to the revolt that brought down Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, and it suggests an explanation:

By noon the protesters quietly vanish.

Many head straight from the streets to the souk, or market, to buy bags stuffed with qat, the mild stimulant leaf that over half of Yemen's 23 million people chew daily, whiling away their afternoons in bliss, their cheeks bulging with wads of qat….

The Yemen protesters' midday departures cast doubt on whether Yemenis are ready to mount a sustained revolt that would be needed to topple [President Ali Abdullah] Saleh from the leadership of the Arab world's poorest country….

Yemenis are not known for being passive. Nationals disgruntled with their government have kidnapped foreigners and locals, ambushed security forces and occupied state buildings to extract concessions. But for many, qat time is sacrosanct.

"When we have protests, they quiet down quickly because of this Yemeni habit. Qat is a negative influence. Every afternoon people go chew qat and the protests don't last more than a few hours in the morning," journalist Samir Gibran said, as he sat chewing qat with friends….

"Nothing quiets people like qat. Look at what they're doing in Egypt," said aluminum worker Ahmed al-Hazoura, as he carefully selected qat branches from a Sanaa shop. "If it wasn't for qat, everyone here would be in the streets protesting."

The headline: "Qat Addiction May Stem Yemen Protests." This knock against qat might puzzle anyone who remembers the press coverage of Somalia's civil war in the early 1990s, when qat allegedly made young gunmen irritable, aggressive, and trigger-happy. Now Reuters claims the very same plant makes chewers directly across the Gulf of Aden passive, lazy, and listless. To reinforce this new story line, it calls qat (accurately) a "mild" stimulant—which was not the impression left by the stories about Somalia's qat-crazed killers—and even describes the plant (inaccurately) as a "narcotic."

Can the same drug have such diametrically opposite effects? In a sense, yes, because context has a powerful influence on how people behave after consuming a drug (as anyone who has observed alcohol consumption at a frat party and at a formal dinner can attest). If there is truth to the claim that qat breaks are undermining the protests in Yemen, it is not because of the drug's psychoactive effects but because of the social customs surrounding its use. Yemenis could, after all, chew qat in the streets; Somali soldiers managed to do so. But then the ritual would have a different meaning: Chewing qat would be a way to stay active and alert instead of a way to relax and socialize. The variable uses of stimulants are reflected in the old slogan asserting that coffee "picks you up while it calms you down"; tobacco has long served a similar dual function.

To its credit, Reuters includes an alternative narrative in which qat circles, like the English coffeehouses of the 17th and 18th centuries or the taverns of colonial America, promote dissent instead of muffling it:

Some analysts say qat addiction is not a serious barrier to mass protest in Yemen, and young activists say customary qat-chewing gatherings play the same role as social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook elsewhere in the region.

"Sure we use Facebook like kids in other countries, but a lot of the protests that were organized, students planned at qat sessions. Qat has a positive role in political mobilization," Fakhr al-Azb, a 23-year old university student, said.

Whichever account is closer to the truth, we should be wary of a pharmacological essentialism that depicts the social effects of drug use as a straightforward chemical reaction. To a larger extent than is commonly recognized, people choose how they respond to drugs.