Kenya self-evaluation on alcohol and drug issues: a potential impasse?

In Kenya, the second conference on drug and alcohol issues was organized by NACADA (National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse). Several presentations, conducted by national experts, underlined several facts. Firstly, young Kenyans seem to be in contact with drugs very early (from primary school). They are also increasingly heavy drug users. Secondly, stress and genetic factors could worsen drug consumption. Thirdly, the role of parents and family is crucial to prevent children from taking drugs to curb dependence and taking drugs is a sinful behaviour. The last fact is that the police suffer from the lack of means to tackle drug issues. Let’s detail these conclusions.

The first fact could be illustrated by the Embu County case study. Many children stop going to school altogether: according to the study, this situation contributes to them becoming involved in the miraa business. A survey, which involved several stakeholders (primary school pupils, teachers, education officers, officials), was carried out. It appears that boys are more involved than girls. The main activities are selling and harvesting khat (32%) but children also work in farms (16%) and own plants (14%). The findings show that encouragement by parents and guardians is the most important factor of involvement (43%); money is the second reason but with only 21,9%.Working in the khat  business causes less concentration (25%), poor academic results (22,9%) and absenteeism (22,9%).
Stress and genetic issues are dealt with by two studies. The first study looked at bodaboda (motorcycle cab) drivers. Among the 80 drivers, 55% drink and 45% were reported they couldn’t ride their bikes without taking alcohol or smoking cigarettes. 60% had smoked cigarettes, 20% marijuana, 10% chewing tobacco and 5% miraa. Several causes (the survey questions had multiple answers) could explain bodaboda drivers’ drug consumption:  peer pressure (60%), coping with domestic obligations (40%), and lack of role models (75%). Other (no figures) factors such as easy drug access or loans were mentioned. Concerning genetics, the study was carried out by scientists in order to warn communities about the potential threats when taking drugs. The hair of different individuals from different tribes were analysed to test their drug use and researchers conclude that the tribes are not equal regarding drug dependence and specific genes (ADH1B, ADH1C and ALDH 2) are involved.

The third fact is more qualitative than quantitative. Parents who often argue with each other or bad parenting in general and parents’ drug consumption could lead the children taking drugs. The Anglican church of Kenya, assert that alcoholism is a sin regarding Bible scriptures.

The final fact deals with how Kenyan Police work on drug issues. The police have inadequate equipment and insufficient funding. Moreover, potential witnesses are afraid of reprisals and the police face ever-changing court decisions.

The slogan of NACADA, “Drug free nation”, reminds us that the objective is not only to tackle drugs but it is to make drug use disappear. The above paragraphs show there is a potential impasse with this policy. Some parents encourage their children to become involved in drug trafficking. This implies that drugs have a social function.  Some drinkers are just stressed: the origin of their problem is rather human condition than alcohol itself.  Linking tribes and alcoholism could lead to discrimination. The various court decisions highlight that drug policy is not as clear it seems to be.

The drawbacks of such a policy could be avoided by trying to follow some recommendations explored by the speakers. Firstly, legalization of Miraa could help to control the business: (this was proposed by of the Kenya National Commission for UNESCO). Secondly, heavy drinkers have to be considered as sick people rather than sinners. In addition to what the speakers said, we could add these recommendations: carefully determine why people are taking drugs before ascribing drugs as the main cause of problems, including looking at their genetics; the implementation of a harm reduction strategy could be useful.  It’s also important Kenyan authorities recognize taking drugs is an individual choice too. Finally, the Kenyan government should encourage public debate about drugs and continue to support evidence-based research on drugs (economy, sociology and so on).

Tackling drug issues is not easy and yet Kenya government should have the courage to broaden its drug policy toolkit. Kenyans need big decisions that serve the common good and not based on discrimination, crime and punishment.