Earlier this year, I wrote on why marijuana should be decriminalised in the new penal code. As always, there was a mini-storm from all my conservative penpals [is it keyboard-pals these days?], who were eager to explain how Satan and all manner of evil lurked in a lit joint. I daresay, the bible and a large body of science does not back up these views.
Can you recall any passage in the bible that states ‘thou shalt not inhale weed’? [I’ll have to consult with my Islamic friends on what the Quoran has to say about the matter].
Research has also shown that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco [they’re both legal] and may even have medical application.
Marijuana has an unfair reputation and on the strength of this, it got into the penal code. Last I checked, smoking weed can get you a maximum of five years at a prison near you. If I’m liberal on marijuana, there is one substance that I agree should be criminalised.
It goes by several names and is even rumoured to be the raw material for Uganda’s best known export, Uganda Waragi – the spirit of Uganda [talk about branding genius]. In Rwanda, it is known as ‘kanyanga’, roughly translated as ‘crude gin’.
Crude gin is distilled with no consideration for the safety of the final consumer. Reports of deaths and people going blind from consuming kanyanga laced with all manner of lethal chemicals abound in our region [I cannot recall any local reports offhand].
It’s also an unfair competitor for legitimate brewers and distillers of alcoholic drinks as traders [‘dealers’?] don’t pay any taxes or spend anything on promotion and distribution. Kanyanga is bad for tax revenues, which may explain the vigour of the police on this issue, low tax revenues equals delayed paydays and no raises for a policeman.
The thing about this gin is that it is cheap and a lot of people would pay very little to get very drunk [interestingly, public drunkenness is also a crime] so there’s always going to be a demand for it.
The demand for kanyanga is so strong that its cross-border smugglers in Gicumbi District have reportedly destroyed property of suspected police informants and bribed local police officers. Just last week, the Vice-Mayor of Kayonza district and a light police escort were confronted in broad daylight by a mob of machete-wielding distillers.
In Nyagatare District, authorities were keen to point out that gender-equality has come to the criminal underworld as they paraded quite a few female smugglers.
The strange constant in all these stories is that there is usually reference being made to corrupted local policemen or administrators who either tolerate the crude gin business or even participate in it.
This got me thinking about the effects of the illegal cocaine trade in Latin America, the inner cities of the west and more recently, some countries in West Africa that are now reputed narco-states.
Of course comparing global trade in hard drugs like cocaine and heroin with kanyanga is like comparing a truck to a bicycle.
The sheer scale of the former has meant that far better resourced law enforcement than Rwanda’s are still losing ground to this trade even today. That said, it should be noted that even the monster trade in illegal narcotics had humble beginnings like our very own kanyanga.
The first growers and smugglers probably started by harassing nosy neighbours and bribing their local police and ‘nyumbakumi’ before they went on to bigger things. Kanyanga may seem like a small irritant today but if some local administrators are already falling under the spell of petty criminals, how will we deal with the big boys when they come with their hard drugs?