Pubdate: Wed, 15 Sep 2004
Source: Daily Nation (Kenya)
Copyright: 2004 Nation Newspapers
Author: Rosella Njaya, with KNA


The police officers sitting at the back of the two pick-up vehicles
occasionally bend to avoid being scratched by the overgrown vegetation
as they slowly make their way through the rough terrain in rural
Buhere sub-county in Uganda.

A sudden shout from one of them spurs them into action. They jump out
and immediately start running in opposite directions; within minutes
the village is surrounded.

Unfortunately, the ambush yields nothing, except for the sheep and
goats left behind by the villagers. "They might have got wind of the
operation or heard us approaching and gone to hide at the swamp
between our two countries," explains one officer.

Undaunted, the officers from both Kenya and Uganda get down to
business. As one group physically uproots the bhang (cannabis sativa)
plants, others systematically search for the harvested crop in the
huts, heap it and set it ablaze. They move from one home to another
until all farms under the crop in a village are cleared.

For three years now, Ugandan farmers cultivating bhang have had to
contend with frequent raids by joint anti-narcotic units from Kenya
and Uganda, who are determined to dismantle the drug syndicate.

"We mapped out joint strategies to fight drugs after we realised that
large hauls of bhang being netted along major highways were coming
from across the border. Our joint surveillance revealed large acres of
bhang plantations in Luhere, Lumino, Masaba and Masafu sub-counties
within Busia, Uganda," says inspector Imanene, who is in charge of the
Kenyan anti-narcotics unit. "Our idea was to destroy the plants at
source and cut supply to the Kenyan market. When the crop is almost
ready, our colleagues tip us and we team up with them in the operation".

The narcotics unit boss says their efforts are bearing fruit because
areas previously under bhang are now being put under other crops. "No
serious farmer wants to waste his efforts tending crops that will be
destroyed, he adds.

"Although the plant is illegal in Uganda, it is a thriving business
for most farmers, who regard it as their main cash crop, because they
are are assured of a ready market and steady income from Kenya. Some
of the customers even lease farms and pay the cost of tending the crop
and only come to collect the processed merchandise.

The US is the only country in the world where cannabis sativa or
marijuana is grown legally, but it is specifically for scientific
research. A magazine published by the Drug Enforcement Administration
says that this research has resulted in the development and marketing
of dronabinol (marino), a product containing synthetic
tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is used to control nausea in
patients undergoing chemotherapy as well as an appetite stimulant.

"Drug use in Uganda is minimal but we are aware that widespread drug
abuse among young people in Kenya causes many social problems which
also affect us. That's why we are doing everything possible to assist
in fighting its production at its source," says Ugandan officer Waitenga.

Last year they destroyed 14 acres at Masafu and Masafu sub-counties in
Busia, Uganda, where they also burnt 1,260 kilogrammes of refined cannabis.

Although the narcotics units realise that they cannot uproot bhang
from every farm, they believe they are succeeding in sending the
message across to those who, for long, regarded cannabis as their main
cash crop. "The stubborn ones are now hiding the plant among thick
foliage to avoid detection," says Waitenga.

"Our laws are lenient to offenders, with penalties ranging between
three and six months. It's not regarded as a serious offence, unlike
in Kenya," he notes.

In Kenya, one can be jailed for up to 20 years or fined two million
shillings for trafficking, while being in possession of bhang attracts
a jail sentence of up to 14 years or a fine of Sh 200,000 or twice the
amount of the value of the drugs, says Imanene.

Cannabis or hemp is a wild plant that grows in most temperate and
tropical climates. It contains 9 terahydrocannabinol (THC), which is
responsible for most of the characteristic psychoactive effects of the
drug. When smoked, it induces a sense of well-being and a dreamy
relaxation. The leaves, seeds and flowers are crushed, dried and
rolled and smoked like tobacco and the effects are felt within minutes.

Possible side effects of prolonged use include, increased appetite and
disoriented behaviour. Bhang usage leads to crime, violence and
dependence and people under the influence of the drug have been known
to commit offences ranging from rape to robbery, adds Imanene.

The drug is usually hidden in sacks of cassava or charcoal and
transported through the porous Kenya-Uganda borders on bicycles. Once
inside Kenya, it is transported to the major urban centres by motor

"For effective border surveillance, the units require detectors and
snifter dogs. We are currently relying on informers, who sometimes
misinform us," says Imanene.

We can only hope for harmonisation of the laws between the two
countries regarding the use and possession of narcotic drugs in order
to curb the trade," says Waitenga, who admitted that after the raids,
little follow-up is made to apprehend those engaged in the business.

Although only a few farmers engage in the business, the innocent are
forced to pay the price by fleeing their homes when the law enforcers
strike. After the raid, life goes back to normal - until the next operation.
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MAP posted-by: Derek