REALITY CHECK

Bhang use spreads more than the cops can handle

Less than four per cent of bhang users are likely to get arrested in a given year

In Summary

• The sheer scale of trade in the banned substance makes it impossible to control it 

Nyamu Kibui, who was arrested with Sh500,000 bhang in Mathioya in 2019
Nyamu Kibui, who was arrested with Sh500,000 bhang in Mathioya in 2019
Image: ALICE WAITHERA

To some people, smoking a roll of bhang (marijuana) is as normal as smoking a cigarette. They easily get bhang, smoke it anywhere and do not worry about getting caught. Those who take the drug say it helps them work better.

Meanwhile, bhang peddlers appear to have infiltrated all corners of Kenya’s towns and every village in the countryside. Most people who do not consume bhang probably don’t know there’s a peddler in their local environment. The bhang peddler could be the university student from a respectable home, the local watchman, the shopkeeper, your well-dressed middle-aged neighbour, even the vegetable vendor. There’s just no way of identifying a bhang peddler just from looks.

As bhang peddlers cut across social and economic classes, so do their customers. The use of bhang was previously associated with unruly youths and criminals, but people who appear like upright citizens can be found consuming it within their spacious compounds. In some residential areas, it is not unusual to catch the scent of bhang in the air.

In rural areas, boda boda operators are a growing consumer group for the drug because they regularly have access to cash. Due to their mobility, they sometimes act as brokers between peddlers and customers. “There are quite a number of big-shots who consumer bhang around here,” a boda boda operator in Voi town told this writer. “They give me money and tell me to bring back bhang because they don’t want to go buy it themselves,” he says.

Salim Mwanyota, a truck driver, says he must smoke a roll of bhang every night at 3am. “My wife knows I take it and she has accepted it,” Mwanyota says. “I wake up, step out of the door and smoke my roll without disturbing her.”

Peter Musau, a barber, says he smokes bhang twice a day. “When I get home from the barbershop, I smoke half a roll before I get into bed. I smoke the rest of the roll in the morning as I get ready for the day’s work,” he says.

LAW ENFORCEMENT

The possession, sale and consumption of bhang is illegal in Kenya, but most small-time users are likely to get away with it because of laxity in enforcement. The sheer scale of trade in the banned substance makes it impossible for the police to catch everybody involved in it.

According to Nacada, 2,386 people were arrested across Kenya for possession of bhang during the first six months of 2019. Assuming a similar number of arrests in the second half of that year, approximately 4,772 would have been arrested in the whole of 2019 for possessing bhang.

Data by Nacada indicates one per cent of Kenyans aged 15-65 are currently using bhang. This translated to 215,967 people in 2017, when the findings were published. When the number of bhang users is analysed alongside data from police arrests, one can conclude that less than four per cent of bhang users in Kenya is likely to get arrested in a given year.

Nacada found that much of the bhang consumed in Kenya originates from neighbouring countries, such as Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda. Ethiopian bhang, popularly known as Shashamane or just Shash, is taking Kenyan users by storm. It is said to be much more potent than the other varieties of bhang known to circulate in the country.

One bhang smoker talks of going into a six-hour stupor after smoking Shash. Jay Otieno was at home one Saturday afternoon when a friend dropped by and gave him Shash. As he was not going to work that day, Otieno was already bored so he smoked the Shash to pass time. “I smoked the roll of Shash at 2pm,” Otieno recalls. “I was still in bed when my wife came home in the evening. I pretended to be sick so she would not suspect anything.”

LEGALISE IT?

The prevalence of bhang consumption in Kenya and across the world has led to calls for the drug to be legalised. In Kenya, the push for legalisation of bhang was led by former Kibra MP the late Ken Okoth. In 2018, he proposed before Parliament the Marijuana Control Bill to legalise the production, distribution and consumption of the drug.

Following Ken Okoth’s death in 2019, the flame of bhang legalisation was taken up by former Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko and is currently championed by Dagoretti South MP John Kiarie, who emphasises the economic benefits of growing marijuana. During a parliamentary debate last February, Kiarie said legalising marijuana should not be misconstrued as calling for its recreational use.

WORRIES OVER EFFECTS

The effects of bhang on individuals are already well documented and are the biggest hindrance towards the legalisation of the drug. According to the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, the effects of bhang smoking include:

  • Heightened sensory perception (such as seeing colours brighter than they really are).
  • Laughter.
  • Altered perception of time.
  • Increased appetite.
  • Some people experience anxiety, fear, distrust and panic.
  • Large doses of bhang may cause hallucinations, delusions and loss of an individual’s sense of personal identity.

In many places across Kenya, young men are spending their time idling in groups where consumption of alcohol, muguka and bhang are commonplace. The places, known informally as “Maskani”, are popular with unemployed youth. There are concerns that young people may be turning into a drug-crazed generation of zombies lacking the motivation to improve their lives.

The young men sitting in Maskanis all day will eventually grow into middle-aged men high on bhang but with no jobs, no money, no wives, no property and nothing in their lives except stained teeth.

Edited by T Jalio