Ben skillfully rolls the white two-and-a-half inch bhang sticks in his hands. He then neatly tucks them into an auburn sheath, ready for sale.
Ben, a student and drug peddler, then lights one of the finished products to ‘test’ and savour the moment. Finally, he leans back on his black swivel chair and spins as he watches plumes of smoke dance merrily in the air. Now he is ready for his customers.
Ben, who conducts his trade at the University of Nairobi (UoN) hostels, gets a minimum of 10 to 15 customers a day.
“Most of my customers are male students. Female smokers who smoke bhang are reluctant to come and buy so they send their male counterparts,” he said.
Andrew, another student, said that before he studies he smokes one stick to make him more ‘attentive’ in class and while studying. “The heightened emotional state encourages me to study hard,” he said.
He added that the drug gives him a different endearing personality. “I crack a lot of jokes to my friends and since I love football, I am able to do extensive football analysis.”
The above scenario captures the grim picture at Kenya’s institutions of higher learning – that of wanton drug abuse. The vice has proliferated so much that smoking bhang even in public places is the norm.
The drug-abuse culture has been propagated by, among others, mimicry of utopian tendencies in foreign cultures projected through the media, giving young Kenyans the impression that it’s “abnormal” in modern times to watch rap or reggae videos without semi-nude video vixens, fast cars, money and of course the artistes themselves smoking bhang or abusing other forms of drugs.
Other causes include too much freedom, the high cost of living, which means that parents have left child upbringing to teachers, and peer pressure, especially in colleges and universities.
According to Prof Gathogo Mukuria, who teaches psychology at the UoN, the claim that bhang contributes to a user being more focused is a fallacy. He said it is a myth. “Marijuana does not get you in a good mood. When you are hooked to a bad habit you tend to give excuses,” he asserted.
As for Ben, he revealed that he peddles three types of bhang: Common Marijuana (also known as Ombitho, Bongo or Kawaida, each sold at Sh30; Marijuana Gold, sold at either Sh50 or Sh70 depending on its size; and Ethiopian Weed (Shash), also going for either Sh50 or Sh70.
A publication by the National Authority for Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Nacada) detailing frequently asked questions on drugs and substance abuse says bhang contains 50 per cent more tar than a cigarette.
“It (bhang) can be made from leaves, seeds and flower shoots and contains delta-9-tetra hydrocannabinal (THC), a mind altering substance. It also has more than 400 chemicals that are harmful to the body,” the publication indicated
The Nacada publication also lists the short-term effects of drugs: false bravery, paranoia, delusion, delayed fatigue, and poor judgment. The long-term effects include psychological dependence, impotence and lack of personal body hygiene.
Despite this grim reality, the weight of love students carry for this drug does not seem to lighten. Cyrele, also a student, however, is adamant that bhang is very helpful to students, particularly during exams.
“A fortnight before exams, I always wake up at six o’clock to smoke at least two sticks. I believe bhang enables me to study harder,” he said cheerfully. He further highlighted that he is an A student.
In contrast, Brian’s reasons for smoking bhang are not in any way related to academics. He does it recreationally. “I smoke it for fun during weekends with my friends. There is no fun in smoking alone. In a group you get to puff and pass to the next person.”
His sentiments are echoed by Job Githinji, an addiction counselor with Nacada, who says that not all users of bhang smoke for academic reasons. “Students, especially those engaged in hard sciences such as Medicine, use bhang to cope with academic pressure. On the other hand, those pursuing courses in Arts use it for fun,” he said.
WAYS OF ABUSE
Nevertheless, Prof Mukuria emphatically said students who use bhang are only trying to fill emptiness. “If what they are missing in their lives cannot be filled with something of worth, they look for an alternative: drug abuse,” he said.
According to the World Drug Report published in 2011, recreational use spurs bhang abuse. “The main purpose of users is to reach a ‘social high’, relax, enhance activity, increase confidence and reduce boredom,” the report indicated.
Moreover, Prof Mukuria, who has lived in the United States for more than 20 years, added that many young Kenyans are copying a lot of Western permissiveness exhibited in films.
“I have lived in America for 23 years and their behaviour is being copied in Kenya,” he observed.
The effects of bhang, which is abused either by smoking it or consuming it through baked biscuits called Kush Cookies or Hush Brownies, are severe. It remains in the body for 36 days or more.
Mr Githinji added that bhang use ultimately drives smokers to experiment on other more potent drugs: “It comes as no surprise for bhang smokers to eventually start using heroine.”
According to Mr Githinji, after bhang smoke is inhaled, it is absorbed in the lungs through the alveoli. It is then assimilated into the blood and transported to the brain via the bloodstream because it has a high affinity for fat (the brain is made up of 60 per cent fat).
Once in the brain, it can interfere with short-term memory or induce other severe effects like mental illness. Sadly, nine to 12 per cent of users become addicts.
So how can the situation be corrected? How can this generation be rescued from a vice that has been so intricately interwoven in the very fabric that defines our society?
The president, for starters, declared total war on drugs and dealers at the Coast a while back. But, like the alcohol purge in Kenya’s central region, will the same “success” be witnessed in the war on drugs?
To remedy the situation, Prof Mukuria thinks that stakeholders should first tackle the problem at the grassroots level, which in this case is home.
According to him, a deficiency of both toughness and discipline in homes – two approaches that defined parenting in earlier generations – is encouraging waywardness in children. “Children these days lack discipline and purpose in life. As a result, they are experimenting on anything that can bring excitement in their lives.”
Is the future bleak? “Not so”, said Prof Mukuria.
He believes that parents, the society and the government must chip in to teach children right and wrong, instead of perpetually blaming them. He also urges the youth to engage in positive activities and not to indulge in substance abuse. “Young people need to practice restraint from drugs.”