Malawi parliament to debate cannabis farming

A research field of industrial hemp at Chitedze research station in Malawi capital Lilongwe. Farmers say it failed to yield expected results. [VOA

Malawi's parliament is considering legislation to permit the cultivation of marijuana or cannabis. The aim is to boost the country's foreign exchange earnings but anti-drug advocates are against it.

Malawi lawmaker Peter Dimba told parliament Thursday that locally grown cannabis - which he referred to by its local name of "chamba" - is in high demand abroad and could yield millions of dollars for the country.

"In studies that were done, it is envisaged that when we start growing our own chamba we will be able to generate as much as $200 million per year at the infant stage of the industry," said Dimba. "But as the industry grows to maturity, we will be able to earn as much as $700 million. In fact, it is more than double what we are actually currently getting from the sale of tobacco."

Malawi has long relied on tobacco, which accounts for about 13% of its gross domestic product and 60% of its foreign exchange earnings.

But over the years, tobacco prices have fallen, largely because of anti-smoking campaigns championed by the World Health Organization and the proven link between tobacco use and cancer.

In 2020, Malawi enacted a law permitting the cultivation of hemp — the non-psychoactive part of the cannabis plant - as an alternative to tobacco farming. But farmers say industrial hemp hasn't yielded the expected results.

Mathews Osman leads a cooperative of industrial hemp farmers in Mchinji district in central Malawi. He said there is a stronger market for cannabis with the plant's mind-altering element, THC.

"The industrial hemp took us a long time to find a possible buyer," said Osman. "With this high THC, it seems to be a lot of buyers on the ground."

Tobacco has long been Malawi's leading foreign exchange earner but experts say cultivation of local cannabis would overtake it.

Osman said another problem with industrial hemp was that the seeds were imported and expensive, while seeds for a local cannabis variety are expected to be cheaper.

Patrick Galawanda is the spokesperson for the religious group Rastafarians in Malawi, which uses marijuana for spiritual purposes. He said he hopes the legalization of cannabis will keep Rastafarians from getting arrested when they are found with cannabis.

"We have been crying out for this for a long time," he said. "For us the Rastafarians family, we use this for spiritual purposes and for medicinal purposes. So they must stop arresting Rastafarians for the sake of cannabis."

Some Malawians want cannabis cultivation to remain illegal. Nelson Zakeyu is executive director for Drug Fight Malawi, a local NGO which has long fought against drug abuse.

"This is worrisome because cannabis is a drug," said Zakeyu. "Cannabis is poisonous. It is very, very problematic especially to teenagers because scientists have said that once young people under the age of 21 start using cannabis, their brain is permanently damaged."

Zakeyu said another worry is that according to research his organization conducted last year, the number of teenagers using cannabis doubled soon after Malawi legalized the use of industrial hemp in 2020.

He said the number would soar further if cannabis with a high content of THC could be legally grown.

Richard Chimwendo Banda is the leader of government lawmakers in parliament.

He said the government will handle the matter with caution.

"As government, we are very cautious because we have the duty to protect our young people. And we will make sure that anything else that comes in protects our young people and protects the nation," he said. "But, when it comes to the economic benefits of it, we must make sure we facilitate the economic benefit of it."

Lawmakers are still working on the bill to amend existing laws on cannabis; it is not clear when the measure might come up for a vote.