Al-Qaida-linked tribesmen ban popular drug in southern Yemen

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SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Tribesmen allied with al-Qaida's branch in Yemen have imposed a ban on the leafy qat plant, a mild narcotic widely chewed on a daily basis, in a southern port city overrun by the militants last month.

Yemeni men traditionally chew qat for several hours starting around midday, stuffing their cheeks with the leaves and letting its narcotic dissolve in their saliva. At daily qat-chewing sessions Yemenis recline on floor cushions, listen to traditional music, exchange gossip and engage in wide-ranging debates.

The widely cultivated plant consumes 30 percent of the extremely scarce water resources in Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, and cuts into the production of other crops. The World Health Organization classifies the drug as a narcotic.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and allied tribesmen overran the city of Mukalla -- capital of the vast Hadramawt province -- last month, in part because of heavy fighting elsewhere between Shiite rebels known as Houthis and loyalists of Yemen's internationally recognized president, backed by Saudi-led airstrikes.

The tribesmen, who refer to themselves as "Sons of Hadramawt," on Thursday distributed pamphlets saying qat chewing is banned and that violators "will be held fully responsible under Shariah law," without elaborating.

Pictures posted on social networking sites for local reporters showed tribesmen setting fire to piles of green leaves in the streets while others armed with assault rifles halted trucks carrying the plants and turned them away from the city.

"Qat is a problem either way," said Salem Dayan, a merchant in Mukalla. "If you ban it, people will have nothing to do to kill time, and if you lift the ban, you bring back the financial burden on your family." A person can spend anywhere from $5 to $50 on qat for a single session.

Retired teacher Ahmed Basalma welcomed the ban, saying qat "ruined lives and wrecked whole families," but that addicts would likely find a way around it.

Awad bin Dagher, a government employee, said there are no recreational alternatives to the drug. "We have nothing but the seafront," he said. "I can't imagine my life without qat."

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