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Kenyan Moonshining: Punishment or Harm Reduction

Kenyan Moonshiners

BBC News recently published an article online about Kenyan moonshiners. 70 people are believed to have died as a result of illegal alcohol production, with an additional 181 being hospitalized. In response to the incident, the Kenyan government suspended one official and arrested two of the suspected brewers. Other brewers involved have gone into hiding to avoid punishment. Some Kenyans are not satisfied with the actions of the government and, according to the BBC, “are angry that more is not being done to clamp down on the illicit trade”. Problems usually arise from methanol being added to alcohol in order to increase its potency, and the punishment for poisoning the alcohol in this way is a fine of $114,800 or five years in prison.

In 2010, the government acted to legalize and regulate the production of the locally brewed liquor, known as “changaa”, in order to prevent dangerous brewing practices. This effort to move changaa into the licit sphere has proved difficult because it is so tough for brewers to gain access to clean, safe ingredients and still make the product available to the public at an affordable price. The alcohol content is often “bolstered, using anything from embalming fluid to stolen jet fuel”. It seems that as long as brewers do not have access to clean materials, adulterated alcohol will continue to be a problem.

My final course at Colorado College, before I graduate, is called “The Drug War”. A lot of what we have talked about is the health burden of drugs being part of the illicit sphere, and I couldn’t help but being reminded of that whilst reading about moonshining in Kenya. A lot of the negative health affects that result from methamphetamine use, for example, actually result from the impure ingredients that are used to create it illegally. Adderall, a commonly prescribed medication, is chemically similar to meth, but does not have the same negative health effects. This also seems to be the case with alcohol production in Kenya. Because many of the brewers do not have the resources to create a product that is strong enough, they need to add dangerous substances so that consumers are satisfied with their level of intoxication.

I agree with the Kenyan government’s decision to legalize the production of changaa, it has alleviated them of the extremely costly burden of trying to prevent illicit production. However, it is still too difficult for producers to be part of the regulated market. If Kenya truly wants to prevent its citizens dying or suffering from health problems due to poorly distilled alcohol, it will provide brewers with better equipment and ingredients. At first, this might sound like something the poorly financed Kenyan government would be unable to afford. However, consider the health cost of looking after poisoned alcohol consumers, in addition to the lost tax revenue due loss of output as a result of death and inability to work due to poisoning.

Without doing more to ensure the safety of its alcohol-consuming citizens, the Kenyan government runs the risk of worsening the poverty of its citizens. Many of the ingredients used to “bolster” the alcohol consumed in poor communities are much worse than distilled alcohol and can create long-term health problems. This severely impacts available labor capital and burdens the health industry. It is my opinion that the Kenyan government should create some sort of brewers co-operative where correct distilling practices are taught and adequate goods and equipment are provided. This will be a positive investment for the government because it would alleviate huge costs that will arise further down the line.

Article by Elliott Levett

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