An apartment block in Thika hosts several students from different universities. The first floor is reserved for men. At the end of the block is a room, where we meet John (not his real name), a fourth-year student at Mount Kenya University.
John, 23, is a peddler, known as a ‘pedi’ by his customers. He is rolling his blunts as he listens to reggae music. Busy with his work, he says he cannot talk more because he has classes to attend and customers to deal with.
“(Marijuana) comes in different forms – the rolling stick, cookies, mabuyu, jelly sweets – with different prices according to what the customers are used to. I have customers from different campuses, both men and ladies,” he said.
The marijuana he sells, he claims, comes from different countries, but most of his stock comes from Kenya and Tanzania, though some originates from as far away as Malawi and is sold to ‘rich’ students.
“One blunt of bhang that a distributor bought from a Kenyan seller goes for Sh50. What he buys from Tanzania he sells at Sh70, I only get from one distributor and they are legit,” John says.
The door opens and a student asks for ‘shash’, another term for bhang among university students. The peddler hands her two rolls and she gives him Sh100. They don’t talk much – it is just business.
“I roll the drug myself. I started selling to university students because they influence each other and I’m making money out of it. I pay my rent from this business. I can’t complain,” John says.
“This is my side hustle. I have a different phone number that I only give to my customers. That phone can ring the whole night and the whole day.
“I take a quarter of it at Sh4,500 and I can make up to Sh9,000 from it. It comes packaged in different bags, which mostly I estimate at Sh800. I can roll as many as 40 depending on the thickness, but sometimes it’s not about the thickness but the quality.”
He says he can sell about Sh5,000 worth of the drug in one day, and on Fridays and Saturdays, that figure can go up to Sh10000.
We meet another peddler, Francis (not his real name), from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. He lives in Ruiru and says he started selling marijuana in his second year at the university.
How does he get the drug into the hostel?
“I pay the watchman Sh500 to allow me to get inside with it or sometimes I give it to a girl, because at the gates they normally search men only,” he says.
And why do students smoke marijuana? Some do it out of curiosity or are influenced by their peers. Others do it to boost their confidence, improve their appetite, help them sleep better and improve their social skills.
Kamau, 22, a student at Kenyatta University, says his first experience with bhang was when he shared a room at a hostel with senior students.
“It all started with one cookie. I was a first-year student and some of the third-years gave it to me while I was staying in the hostels. I did not think the cookie had a drug in it, I just thought it was a mere cookie, until I started feeling funny,” he says.
“I told my friend I was not okay … that is when he told me it was not just a cookie but it had a drug inside.
“I felt like I was carrying five tonnes of cement on my head. Everything was going in circles. I started hallucinating, seeing things that were not there.
“I was transported to another dimension but it made me happy. I laughed the whole time, so my first experience was not pleasant but interesting.”
For Joyce, 23, her motto is “I can’t cope, don’t mope, there’s hope, smoke dope”. A student at Mount Kenya University, she takes the substance for her world to stop moving.
“I do weed almost every day. Sometimes I think I am addicted to it. It makes me happy.”
She started smoking bhang when she joined university. “I smoke it because it takes me to a totally different planet.” She said it is her way of dealing with stress.
Others use the drug to fit in certain social groups and because of peer pressure. Mary, 20, a student at the University of Nairobi, came from a religiously conservative background and now describes herself as the black sheep of her family.
“When I joined university, my brother told me about (drug use on campuses), so I was prepared to not make those mistakes. But my friends were doing it and now I do it. There is a guy in our hostels who sells the drugs. We refer to him as ‘pedi’,” she says.
Marijuana is illegal in Kenya, although there is growing pressure to decriminalise personal use.
A study on the prevalence and patterns of substance use among undergraduates at a Kenyan university found that tobacco was used by 55 percent of them, alcohol 84 percent, cannabis 20 percent and inhalants seven percent.
Anti-drug abuse agency Nacada says 2,386 people were arrested across Kenya for possession of bhang in the first six months of 2019.