Sobering moment for Kenyans as liquor law comes into force

A man lies under a tyre in a drunken stupor at a Nyeri car wash. Scenes such as these could land somebody in jail once the new alcohol law comes into effect. Photo/JAMES KANYI

This could be the last time you, your relative, friend or neighbour can stagger home drunk without risking being arrested.

It may also be the last time your bar man can sell you drinks on credit, unless he wants to do time in jail.

Barring a court injunction sought by some liquor manufacturers, a new law which became operational at midnight on Friday requires that anyone arrested, with a warrant, for drunkenness three times within 12 months will be put in a rehabilitation home at his or her own cost.

Naivasha MP John Mututho, who sponsored the Alcohol Control Bill, and Frank Njenga, the National Agency for the Campaign Against Drug Abuse (Nacada) chairman, were on Thursday trying to sell the new law to the liquor sector. But as they did so, some manufacturers were in court pleading that the law be suspended.

Dr Njenga, whose organisation will be overseeing the implementation of the new law, sought to assure manufacturers, distributors and retailers gathered at the Strathmore Business School in Nairobi, that the new law will not be punitive and will promote liquor trade as a decent undertaking.

But he was also categorical that all players must obey the law. The law says, among other things, that it will be illegal to run a bar less than 300 metres from a learning institution.

Dr Njenga said there would be a grace period but did not explain what would happen should a school, for instance, go to court next Monday to demand that a nearby pub be shut.

Manufacturers of plastic bottles differed with the Nacada chairman on claims that nobody would lose their investment because of the new law. The law requires that all distilled alcohol be packaged in glass bottles. Presently cheap spirits are sold in plastic containers.

In the eyes of law it will be illegal to sell distilled alcohol in a plastic bottle from next Sunday, unless one gets a reprieve from Nacada. Dr Njenga said some companies with huge stocks of stickers and other materials have written to Nacada for exemption.

It also emerged that Kenyans may have to wait for days or even months before they can enjoy legal chang’aa at their local pub since standards are yet to be worked out and manufacturers have not yet been licensed.

According to the new law liquor licences will be issued by the yet to be constituted District Alcoholic Drinks Regulation Committee. One of the new requirements is that all such committees in all the districts must have one representative from Nacada.

At the meeting, it emerged that indeed Nacada does not have such capacity, and will have to recruit or engage other organisations. “We are consulting with the provincial administration in some parts of the country to solve this problem,” said Dr Njenga.

But even when an application for a licence is made it will take 21 days before it is approved or rejected. This means some liquor outlets may have to operate without licences for some time, during which time they will be running illegally, opening a window for extortion.

Explaining why all alcohol should be packaged in glass bottle and none of less than 250ml, Mr Mututho said unscrupulous traders have in the past injected toxic chemicals through the plastics.

But the explanation Mr Mututho found himself on the receiving end, with participants pointing to a loophole which could allow for the packaging of most of the current brands in plastics.

They argued that since the new law says all distilled alcoholic drinks should be packaged in bottles it could mean that fortified wines do not fall in this category and currently form a huge percentage of the alcohols targeted for control.

For the first time in Kenya, alcohol will have to pay for the sins it may visit on society. The law requires the creation of an Alcohol Control Fund to be financed through liquor licences and any related goods that are forfeited to the State such as wrongly labelled products.

Half of this money will be distributed to the district committees, 35 per cent to Nacada while 15 per cent will go to civil society groups involved in rehabilitation work or public education on the effects of drinking.

Not even imported alcohol will be spared by the new law as they will be required, just as the local ones, to prominently display a warning indicating that the drink is bad for human health.

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