Статья из "Ха'арец"A qat above the rest
Fri., October 15, 2004 Tishrei 30, 5765
By Idit Avrahami
It's the trendiest drug in Tel Aviv, easily available at convenience stores and over the Internet. Users love it, but some have suffered serious side effects. So why hasn't the Health Ministry released its study of hagigat?
A very happy wedding was held in central Israel two weeks ago. The guests, young and old, danced far into the night - and not only because the music was good.
"At least half of the young people at the wedding were on `hagigat' [a play on the Hebrew word hagiga, meaning celebration, and qat, a stimulant widely used in Yemen and East Africa]. Empty capsules of hagigat were strewn around the rest rooms of the wedding hall," says Shai, one of the guests. "The bartender mixed capsules of hagigat in the drinks and everyone drank them, including the older guests. My mother, for example, drank a little and really had a good time. She danced for hours and was definitely more energetic than ever," Shai adds.
Hagigat is a capsule containing white powder, sold at small convenience stores (known as pitzutziyot in Hebrew because of the nuts - pitzuhim - they prominently display), especially in the Tel Aviv area. Priced at about 50-60 shekels per capsule, hagigat has become the most popular legal drug in Israel. The Health Ministry did order the capsules removed from the shelves (see box) in early July after a young woman in Be'er Sheva apparently swallowed hagigat at a wedding and collapsed, but it continues to be sold openly. Convenience store owners report a rise in demand and a growth in profits. About 600 capsules per week are reportedly sold on King George Street in Tel Aviv. One convenience store owner on Allenby Road admits that he "sells more hagigat than mineral water."
The substance is sold under various names and in a small bag containing a colorful slip of paper noting that hagigat is "a sexual stimulant for women and men, organic, 100 percent natural and without chemicals." Some of the bags include labels indicating that the material is "Produced from Ethiopian Qat". It is also recommended to use it "after meals, to store it in a cool, dark place and to drink lots of water."
But what does the capsule contain? The vendors have a difficult time answering this question. "They told us that it is qat powder and that the feeling one gets when snorting the powder is similar to cocaine." Those who have swallowed the capsule say that it gave them a pleasant sensation, and also made them feel waves of heat that reminded them of the Ecstasy drug.
"There are a lot of people in the business who do hagigat," says S., who works at an advertising firm. "They include refugees from reality shows, a well-known pop singer, an elite literary editor who was said to have been hospitalized as a result of hagigat use, journalists, television and movie personnel and popular actors. This clique likes cocaine very much. But coke is a very expensive drug and there is more fear of becoming addicted to it, despite the fact that hagigat is also addictive. All the people in my office do hagigat on a daily basis. We have a regular meeting at the firm where everyone snorts lines. This helps us keep alert at work."
Efforts to discover who is behind this product and what ingredients the powder contains could provide the script for a Hollywood suspense film. "For months, I have been trying to find out what the hagigat capsules contain, and I don't entirely understand why the Health Ministry does not publish the results of the tests they conducted following the incident with the girl in Be'er Sheva. It's not clear why the public has not been told the truth that lies behind this story," says Adi Alia (AKA Bracha Goleshet), a journalist who was one of the first to write about hagigat (on her Internet site www.goleshet.com).
Alia, who says she first encountered hagigat in 2003, suspects that it "doesn't contain even a bit of qat, but just chemicals that are very easy to produce in a laboratory. The fact that it's so easy to produce them makes it clear why the results of the Health Ministry's tests were sent straight to the police: revealing [the test results] would obviously send dozens of amateur chemists immediately to the Internet to get the simple formula for the substance. This explains the panic at the Health Ministry and police."The `scientist'
M., one of the leaders of the fight to legalize cannabis, provides a few minor clues about the mysterious "scientist" behind hagigat. M. says that he had his first encounter with hagigat in December 2003 when a friend proposed that he market the product. "They told me that it was a completely legal substance. I tried out several samples with friends and I felt at first like someone who got the winning lottery ticket. I went around with bags of samples and I was sure that I had discovered America. But at first, all my efforts to reach the source failed. They refused to give me telephone numbers; instead, they called me and used aliases. I met the `scientist' face to face only one time. "
He says the meeting with the `scientist' was "like a scene from a movie. They set up a meeting in a dark place and arrived in a car with the lights turned off. They led the `scientist' out of the car and introduced him to me. He looked a bit like an anarchist, in his thirties. They told me that he was the chemist who invented the formula. I tried to ask him all sorts of questions, but they put me in the car and drove away. They told me that they have a factory that produces the substance in India or Yemen, but I'm not sure this is true because it's not clear to me how you can bring hundreds of kilograms of white powder into Israel. After several days of deliberation, I decided not to market it. I was afraid that if some 14-year-old girl were to swallow a lot of it and something happened to her, then it would be on my conscience."
But B., a young Tel Aviv woman in her twenties, met the `scientist' a year and a half ago. "He told us that he was able to transform the active ingredient in qat into a powder. He spread the powder on the table and everyone took a sniff. The sensation was quite similar to coke, but burned the nose more." B. says that she tried it on a number of occasions. "The first few times he let us try the substance our temperature would rise, apparently because he was not successful in reaching the correct dosage. He explained to us what the substance contained and promised us that everything was legal and that there were no active ingredients except for qat. I'm not sure that what is being sold today in the convenience stores is the same thing, despite the fact that it feels quite similar."
In attempting to track down the scientist, the trail led to a well-known music producer. "I was the first person to come up with the idea of hagigat," Nitzan Zeira says, happy to confirm the rumors about his connection to the drug. "I thought that in the same way that the active substance is distilled from coca leaves to produce cocaine, it would also be possible to put the qat plant through the same process. I even gave it a name - Qatain," he says. "Everything started about a year and a half ago, when the Balyanim (Maor Cohen and Oren Lutenberg) were going to put out an album and I decided that I would give everyone at the launch party a gram of legal stuff. Through a mutual friend, I knew G., a chemist who works with plants, and I asked him to produce something that would be based on qat. In the end, the Balyanim decided that the album wasn't ready yet and we decided to cancel the party. Meanwhile, G. continued to work on Qatain. And they say that hagigat is very strong stuff, similar to cocaine. I personally am not a user."
Lutenberg, a member of the Balyanim band, confirms Zeira's account. "We sat in his office and we spoke about the album, and suddenly he told us that he was thinking about producing a legal drug that will be called Qatain and would be based on qat, and that he would distribute it at the party. Maor [Cohen] and I looked at one another and were sure he was kidding. We thought it was a joke. He told us that he knows a scientist who could help him concoct the drug."
Last week, at his home in the Sharon region, G. admitted that he is the one who concocted hagigat. He is 35, married with one daughter, a chemist who studies the metabolism of plants. He has degrees in biology and chemistry and works at a recognized academic institution. In his garden, he points out various types of plants. Some of these plants can be used to produce hallucinatory drugs. There is also an Ethiopian qat bush.
"After Nitzan approached me with the idea, I began to work on material on the Internet and in the professional literature," G. says. "For me, it was a very short search before I came upon the method. I found it in an old protocol from the 1980s on an Internet site that described the history of cathinone.
"Cathinone, the active ingredient in the qat plant, does not last long in the plant after the leaves dry up. Thus, the smugglers make great efforts to preserve the freshness of the leaves. When the leaves get old, the enzyme in the leaves changes from cathinone to cathine, which is 10 times weaker, and the stuff is no longer effective. Therefore, for example, when they tried to sell capsules of qat leaves in pharmacies, the substance was not effective because it was based mainly on chopped leaves containing cathine and not cathinone. It took time before I succeeded in finding the precise formula and balancing the various ingredients.
"At one stage," the scientist continues, "someone came to me wanting to invest in this substance. Let's just say that he's a very major player in the world of convenience stores. The guy took some details from me about the production process, and also information about the distilling laboratory and fields [where the qat is grown] - both of which are in another country. I know that he is currently bringing 100 kilograms each month into the country, perhaps more. Several months ago, he called me again and said he was following through on his promise and wants to pay me money. I told him that I prefer not to take money and not to get into trouble."
If you do not have any connection to hagigat, how do you know that it is identical to the substance you produced?
"I have been following the stuff that's in the convenience stores. I buy one or two capsules and analyze them in the lab. In all of my tests, I clearly saw cathinone and did not identify other substances." According to G., "Six months ago, other types of hagigat began to appear. There's a white powder and a powder that is a darker white color. In the testing I've done, I've discovered that in some of the capsules various amounts of Mannitol can be detected. Mannitol is a very inexpensive substance that can be purchased at health stores and used as a sugar substitute for diabetes patients. Drug dealers use it to dilute cocaine, but it's not dangerous. This is how I realized that Qatain had found its way to drug dealers. In some of the tests, I also identify traces of chloric acid. "Feels like cocaine
The chemist says he searched for "articles that would describe the risks of prolonged use of cathinone. The only study I found in the literature presented a direct link between Somalian qat-chewers in Britain and bad family relations. Today I can say that prolonged use of cathinone leads to a distancing between people. I think that, like cocaine, qat is psychologically and not physically addictive. And this is unlike heroin, for example. Today it is mainly important for me that the public knows there is no danger in using cathinone, even long-term use. There is no cognitive damage. On the contrary, it even improves sharpness of mind. The reason I stopped using cathinone was that I felt it was liable to ruin my family and my relations with my wife. Every time I was tired, if I had to stay late at work, or do lengthy tasks, I would do a line to remain alert," G. says.
But many young people throughout Tel Aviv continue to consume the substance on a daily basis. In some bars, you can see them crowding into the rest rooms with bags they purchased at the nearby convenience store and snorting lines without anyone disturbing them. Thus, The Guardian in Britain declared in an article in early September that the night life in Tel Aviv is on a par with New York and London, especially after the young people here discovered hagigat: "It is Thursday night and the young of Tel Aviv are queuing for their supplies for the big night out of the Jewish week. At the city-center kiosks, some customers ask for cigarettes or some gum, but about one in three furtively inquires: `Hagigat?'" wrote Conal Urquhart in the Guardian.
S., a 29-year-old resident of Tel Aviv, says, "The big advantage of hagigat is that it is accessible and inexpensive. All the young people are excited about it now because it is something new. It's a lot like cocaine in that it accelerates the heartbeat and increases the libido. I admit that I participated in several orgies where all of the people did hagigat and fucked for hours. This drug makes you act irrationally and gives people legitimacy to act more freely."
Maya, 25, agrees: "It is undoubtedly the most trendy drug now in Tel Aviv. Because it's legal, there is also no problem snorting it on a table in a bar, though most prefer to go to the rest rooms and snort discreetly. And then, of course, it feels more like cocaine."
But there have also been young people who tried hagigat and reported very unpleasant incidents. As mentioned above, a 28-year-old woman was hospitalized at Soroka hospital in Be'er Sheva at the beginning of August after collapsing at a wedding. Her friends said that she had swallowed a hagigat capsule toward the end of the wedding. Her blood pressure skyrocketed and this apparently led to a blood clot in her brain. The woman's friends told the doctors about the pill and were asked to bring one so they could examine it. Soroka says that it cannot disclose the results of this test because it is still part of an ongoing police investigation.
Another young person who collapsed after swallowing the substance is Arik, 22, also from Tel Aviv. "I was at a private party and swallowed one pill. Later, I snorted a little from a second pill. Before that, we had also smoked a little hashish. A few minutes later, I began to feel ill; my neck stiffened up and I wasn't able to move," he says. "I lay down on the floor and began to sweat profusely. Two friends took me into the shower and sprayed water on me. I felt totally dehydrated, despite the fact that I had drunk a lot of water, as it says to do on the label. A few seconds later, I vomited and then I felt better."
Despite such problems and the directives from the Health Ministry, the substance continues to be sold. A convenience store owner says, "Every day, dozens of people come and ask about it. Sometimes people come in and buy 30 capsules at a time. I have customers who purchase it every day. No one has any idea what's in it, but people are doing it like crazy."
And what about the Health Ministry's order to remove it from the shelves?"We removed it. We keep it under the counter."
There are also some convenience store owners who are worried. On Dizengoff Street, one vendor says, "Several months ago, all sorts of people came here offering hagigat. They made all kinds of special offers, to buy from them at 25 shekels and sell at 50. But I know that it doesn't work that way with drugs. At first, they offer it for free. But then you become addicted and they start asking you for money. There's no way we'd sell it here, even though about 20 people ask for it everyday. I don't need some 15-year-old girl collapsing from hagigat, and then telling the police that she bought it at my store."
Hagigat is also available for purchase over the Internet, where there is no fear of sudden inspections by the Health Ministry. One Web site advertises, alongside shirts and pants from Thailand and other gear, hagiga capsules - 10 bags for 500 shekels. The Web site states that hagigat "contains only natural ingredients and does not cause side effects. It heightens alertness, creates a comfortable and good feeling, and stimulates sexual desire." The site does note, "The Health Ministry has removed hagigat from the shelves until further analysis of its active ingredients." But in a telephone conversation with one of the site's operators, it turns out that it is possible to overcome this obstacle. "If you make a real effort, then we can arrange the stuff for you," explains the guy who answers the telephone number listed on the site. "Where do you live? In Tel Aviv? Our messenger can deliver it to your home. And unlike the convenience stores, our products are guaranteed. If you don't like it, you can return it."Up to speed
What does hagigat actually contain? The Health Ministry has been investigating this since July, but has yet to publish the results of its tests. According to Dr. Dorit Nitzan-Klosky, head of the ministry's food administration, the test results are still at the police laboratory and are expected to be sent to the ministry within two weeks. She adds that the ministry suspects that hagigat not only contains cathinone - the active ingredient in the qat plant - but also methcathinone, a more dangerous substance produced through chemical synthesis with cathinone. Methcathinone has been known for three decades in Russia and has been sold there for years as a cheap "speed."
However, a senior official involved in the testing of hagigat told Haaretz that the analysis of the substance has been completed and no traces of methcathinone were detected. The official explained that the lab tests included the identification of every possible organic chemical ingredient and found that cathinone is the only active substance in hagigat. He added that the lab results were sent to a joint committee on the war on drugs, chaired by Haim Messing, the director-general of the National Authority for the War on Drugs. The joint committee also includes representatives from the police and the Health Ministry.
The magazine Forensic Science explains that the active ingredient in the qat plant is the alkaloid cathinone, derived from the plant of that name. Alkaloids have a similar affect to amphetamines. Cathinone is a very sensitive substance that is only active in the fresh leaves of qat. When the leaves dry, the substance becomes weaker and is then called cathine, 10 times weaker than cathinone. Despite the fact that in the United States both cathinone and methcathinone are recognized as dangerous drugs and listed at the same level of danger as cocaine and heroin, they are not included on Israel's list of dangerous drugs.
Prof. Raphael Mechoulam of the Department of Medicinal Chemistry and Natural Products at Hebrew University's School of Pharmacy, who was awarded the Israeli Prize for Chemistry in 2003, explains that cathinone is a dangerous substance. "This is an addictive substance that is identical in its traits to amphetamines. Not that many years ago, the question was raised in Israel of whether to include cathinone on the list of dangerous drugs. There were only a few families in Israel then who grew the plant, so it was decided that it wasn't a serious problem."
The Health Ministry says, "The activity of the active ingredient in qat is apparently similar to that of amphetamines. The substance stimulates neurotransmitters and its negative effects could include anxiety, convulsions, headaches, insomnia, irregular heartbeat, muscle cramps and paranoia." Dr. Nitzan-Klosky continues to claim that it might ultimately be discovered that hagigat includes methcathinone: "And we'll be sure to add it to the list of dangerous drugs."
And what happens if hagigat ends up containing just cathinone, which is found in qat leaves?
"In such a case, we would add cathinone to the list and still allow the traditional use of qat leaves just as it is allowed in Europe, where emigrants from Yemen and Ethiopia use the leaves."
On the list of dangerous drugs, as it appears in Israel law, it is clearly stipulated that the directive applies to the drug's "container" as well as the drug itself. That is, if cathinone is outlawed, it would be necessary to also prohibit the use of qat leaves.
"That's true. We are in a jam. We'll need to study this after we receive the results of the lab tests. We may make an exception for the plant in order to avoid harming the traditional population."
В Голландии - марихуана. У нас - "хагигат".