Mr President: You did not ban alcohol, you created a deadly subterranean bootleg trade

Prohibition in America failed miserably and gave rise to more crime. People didn't stop drinking.

In Summary

• Prohibiting sale and consumption of alcohol except in private homes will only fuel the demand and increase crime by illegal brewers and traders. Expect deadlier illicit alcohol.

• The presidential decree though well-intended is spawning more problems than it will solve. Expect more violent crime and dead bodies.

President Uhuru Kenyatta during the Eighth Presidential address on the coronavirus pandemic at State House, Nairobi, June 6.
NO PUBLIC DRINKING: President Uhuru Kenyatta during the Eighth Presidential address on the coronavirus pandemic at State House, Nairobi, June 6.
Image: PSCU

They were wrong.

Going into the 1920s, some people believed that banning alcohol would make America more peaceful. This led to the 1920 Volstead Act that prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol. This legislation was advocated by the Temperance Movement, which was a social crusade against the consumption of alcohol.

Its leaders demanded the passage of this regulation because of alcohol’s negative effects on people’s health, personalities and family lives. The movement became very prominent and persuasive in many countries, and their demands led to national prohibitions in Canada, Norway, India and the US.


However, the opposite effect took place because nature abhors a vacuum. It gave rise to bootlegging. This was the illegal trafficking in liquor in violation of the restrictions on its manufacture, sale, transportation and consumption.

The Volstead Act ended the legal sale of liquor, but inadvertently created the demand for an illicit supply, because total prohibition of any human activity is not easily enforceable. Americans didn’t stop drinking. Alcohol was produced, sold and consumed in the shadows. Gang leaders bribed the police not to interfere with their lucrative bootlegging businesses.

Shortly after, and not surprisingly so, violent murders, organised crime, corruption, gangsterism and violent turf battles between criminal gangs, defined the decade and beyond. Although Prohibition  ended in 1933, the American Mafia kept growing, because their illegal enterprises had become too profitable to abandon.

This week, the Kenyan rendition of the Volstead Act was declared by President Uhuru Kenyatta when he banned the sale of alcohol in restaurants and eateries for 30 days and closed bars indefinitely. This was as a measure to curb the spread of the coronavirus.  

This ban was preceded by another from Kiambu Governor James Nyoro, who ordered the closure of all alcohol selling points, including wines and spirits outlets and supermarkets. At the same time, Nacada chairperson Mabel Imbuga appealed to Kenyans to snitch on their neighbours by reporting them if they drank in their private homes.

Fellow Kenyans, our own Temperance Movement has arrived.

Mr President, I am nowhere near qualified to be your adviser. You have enough credentialed elites at your disposal. But allow me to reveal to you what their tunnel-vision advice has failed to see, or they are too timid to tell you.


One. Prohibition criminalises lawful people. When you outlaw supply, you do not eliminate demand. Subsequently, law-abiding Kenyans who just want to simply enjoy a beer become criminals overnight. They will get arrested, spend a night or more in police cells and we all know the conditions there are conducive to spreading coronavirus than the bars you have closed indefinitely.

Yet this week, your CS for Interior cautioned the police against frivolous arrests to reduce the high number of petty offenders in remand because it has become quite expensive for your government to maintain them.

Two. Prohibition creates opportunities for criminals to gain control of businesses. Owing to the persistent demand despite the prevailing restrictions, the sale, transportation and consumption of alcohol will be done in the shadows, because of the risk drinking openly will invitet. An increase in risk increases the potential returns.

n economic-speak, this is known as the risk-return tradeoff. Because of the risks involved, lawful people will not engage in the shadowy illegal business. This will leave the field open for criminals to take over. And like the American mafia, if and when you lift this prohibition, the criminals will not easily abandon their lucrative businesses and they will find means and ways to maintain the status quo to continue profiteering.

Three. Due to these high returns, the profits will be worth fighting over. Crime will increase as more illicit businessmen make an entry into this shadowy market and begin fighting over turf.

On one hand, your very able DCI will arrest some of the criminals and they might end up in the very jails that your CS wants to decongest, as the likelihood of contracting the virus is higher there than in the homes where Nacada wants to prohibited the drinking of alcohol. On the other hand, you will still have dead bodies - which you are trying to avoid or minimise by prohibiting alcohol -because of these criminal acts.

Four. Prohibition increases the risk of already risky activities. When you make drinking alcohol illegal, prohibiting it simply makes it more dangerous. Because of the fear of getting caught, people may turn to more potent drinks that are easier to conceal and that will intoxicate them more quickly.

The demand created will incentivise illegal brewers to produce liquor that is more potent and has a higher alcohol content. There is a high likelihood that to produce higher potency liquor, the producers will use unsanctioned ingredients that are lethal and could blind or kill the consumers. You will still end up with dead bodies from a different type of pandemic, and probably more than you would have had from coronavirus.

Five. Misallocation of resources. Any law that very few people agree with requires massive resources to enforce. While your prohibition order took effect overnight, the number of law enforcement officers remained static. This means that they will be stretched even thinner than they already are to ensure that your orders are not disobeyed.

The number of bars, restaurants, eateries, wines and spirits shops and supermarkets that sell alcohol in this country and the number of people that take alcohol far outstrip the number of police and court officers. Without a doubt, the sheer number who will be caught on the wrong side of this law will easily overwhelm them.

While they are busy policing these outlets, they will not be able to attend to other ongoing crimes that equally require their attention. Those that get arrested will end up in already congested police cells. And I need not repeat the state of those police cells.

Mr President, your Volstead Act was intended to solve a problem, but instead it will birth a myriad of other social problems, thus exacerbating several negative externalities that you didn’t have to deal with in the first place. You were wrong.

Finally, my unsolicited advice is to you, Mr President. Most people use statistics the same way a drunk uses a lamp post – for support, rather than for illumination. Likewise, with tunnel vision, your credentialed elites only focus on a single priority, while neglecting or ignoring the other problems their proposed solutions will cause. They are like hammers in search of a nail. Where will the prohibitions stop?

Prohibition makes you want to cry into your beer and denies you the beer to cry into – Don Marquis