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Living with the Devil: The Qat Question

In June 1971 President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs, an assault on the producers, distributors and users of illegal substances. That war has been an abject failure and now 40 years on, this documentary takes as its subject one remarkable natural substance, one that is both illegal and legal, depending on where you are in the world, and a drug that is both vilified as a social menace and lauded as a bastion of culture and economic hope.

Qat (also khat) is a tree that grows at altitude in Yemen, Ethiopia and Eastern Africa. The use of its leaves as a stimulant has been documented since the 13th century when it was discovered in Ethiopia at about the same time as coffee. Users – such as the 80% of adult men in Yemen - chew the fresh leaves and experience a mild mental stimulation combined with physical relaxation. Much of Europe has made qat illegal, but not the UK. Neither strategy appears to have affected usage. Now debate on the drug’s social and physiological effects has been sharpened by the popularity of a powerful qat derivative, mephedrone.

The film will follow a bundle of qat along a modern trade route from Ethiopian grower to European users and attempts to show how such radically different views of a single drug emerged. As the story progresses the vital question is posed: how can developed societies incorporate drug use in a stable way? With its unique position as a drug both demonised and sanctified, qat reveals vital aspects of the drugs debate. In places where it has become culturally embedded, qat could even be a future model for all recreational drug use.