Addicts are patients, it's drug peddlers who are criminals

Branding them criminals makes rehabilitation efforts difficult, if not impossible

In Summary

• The CJ, DPP and DCI are among leaders calling for treatment instead of punishment

A heroin addict injects heroin in Lamu
A heroin addict injects heroin in Lamu
Image: FILE

The society has a habit of treating drug addicts more like criminals than the patients they really are. But leaders are now pushing for reforms that could change perceptions.

Pastor Jacob Muroki of the Jesus the Exalted Centre Church says the fact that the society has branded addicts criminals makes any efforts to rehabilitate them difficult, if not impossible.

At the coastal region, addicts have a nickname, a famous one. They are called ‘Mateja’, a street name meaning a thief who uses hard drugs.

“We live in a society that doesn’t see the silent plight of such individuals,” Muroki says. “Many are stigmatised while they can actually be helped to turn their lives around. You mention the word Teja and people begin looking over their shoulders because they expect to see a thief or a con. That mindset needs to change.”

Speaking when he officially launched the Lamu rehab facility earlier this year, Chief Justice David Maraga said the real criminals in the war on drugs are the smugglers and peddlers, whom he said are frustrating the reform process.


 “I want to let magistrates and judges know that those drug users brought to your courts daily aren’t actually criminals but patients. They need help and condemning them to prison isn’t that helpful," he said.

"Let’s send them to rehab facilities like this one so they get to recover and live better lives and, as the judiciary, we support that approach. Those peddling drugs are the real criminals.”


Speaking in Lamu during the Lamu Justice Week, DPP Noordin Hajji said he is consulting the DCI and the IG to have petty criminals sent to rehab instead of prison. He said many of the petty crimes are committed by addicts who want to buy drugs.

“We are talking of those stealing goats, chicken and so on. We want to give rehab a chance, rather than putting them on trial directly. That will, however, heavily depend on the level and nature of crimes committed. Our objective is to get the big fish in all this,” Hajji said.

During the same week, High Court judge Roselyn Korir, who is based in Garsen, proposed alternative strategies of dealing with the drug menace. These include offering addicts training and skills that will enable them to turn away from the vice.

Korir said in as much as criminal litigations are necessary, the community should embrace addicts and all those affected to enable them to see and pursue a positive and more productive life away from drugs.

She said prison officers should be specially trained in rehab skills so they can help rehabilitate some of the addicts arriving at their various prison stations.

Korir said the country has very few drug rehabilitation centres compared to the demand of addicts. The facilities are also out of reach for many due to their high cost.

“All in all, it’s high time we changed the approach used to fight drugs, from arresting and prosecuting to actually issuing alternative skills and training to drug convicts so they can better their lives once out there,” Korir said.

“The coastal region is still marred with increased drug-related cases, and we need to think about how best to bring the figures down. That's why we are pushing to have prison officers trained on matters rehab so they can instil the same in the addicts before they are finally released back into society.” 

Lamu woman representative Ruweida Obbo proposed the death penalty for those found guilty of drug peddling. “We want drug peddlers given the same treatment as criminal gangs in Mombasa like Wakali Kwanza. That toughness is what we need. Let such people be shot dead. The society will be better without them,” she said.

According to a 2017 national survey by Nacada, 18.2 per cent of Kenyans have used one form of drugs or the other, a figure that translates to 3.2 million people, with the most abused substance being alcohol.