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Cannabis in Malawi is prohibited, but remains a popular drug and is produced for domestic use and export. In Chichewa, it is locally known as chamba. Chamba is grown mainly in central and northern regions like Mzuzu.
Malawian cannabis, particularly the strain known as Malawi Gold, is internationally renowned as one of the finest sativa strains from Africa. According to a World Bank report it is among "the best and finest" marijuana strains in the world, generally regarded as one of the most potent psychoactive pure African sativas. The popularity of this variety has led to such a profound increase in marijuana tourism and economic profit in Malawi that Malawi Gold is listed as one of the three "Big C's" in Malawian exports: chambo (Tilapia fish), chombe (tea), and chamba (cannabis).
Malawi is one of the largest producers of cannabis in Southern Africa. It is mainly cultivated in remote parts of the central and northern regions. In the north, it can be found growing in Mzimba District's Likwawa hills, and in Nkohotakota district. Nkhotakota District is known for producing the best marijuana, particularly near the banks of Lupache river. It can also be found at smaller quantities in the districts of Ntchisi, Kasungu, Ntcheu and Dedza. Most growers cultivate small, out of the way fields up on remote mountain hills, hidden in bushes, or intercropped with other field crops. There are a few commercial farmers. The United Nations Development Assistance Framework report that in the late 1990s, estimated that up to 385,000 acres (1,560 km2) in the country were devoted to the cultivation of marijuana.
Women are largely involved in cultivation of chamba, while men are mainly involved in marketing it. In Malawi, the marijuana buds are cured after being tightly bound in banana or maize leaves. They are sold in units called 'cobs'.
Its quality has led it to out-perform marijuana grown in other countries in terms of sales in each market it is introduced in. International organized groups employ Malawians to purchase and produce cannabis from local producers. It mainly crosses Malawi borders through Mozambique and Zimbabwe, to South Africa. For South Africa, it has led to an increase in marijuana tourism from holiday makers seeking cannabis. More recently Malawian cannabis has now flooded the marijuana markets in Kenya, Tanzania, and many other locales. In Kenya, one cob of pure, smokable marijuana is worth US$1.97. About US$0.32 is paid to the original farmer. It even was available in the Netherlands.
For many marijuana smokers, the strain Malawi Gold has reached almost a cult status. There are websites and blogs which have been dedicated to the praise of chamba. Legends and myths have developed surrounding the potency of the drug, as an example, there is a popular story about visitors that came to Malawi, tried chamba, and lost the will to return to their country of origin.
Malawi gains a significant amount of its tourism from the marijuana trade. Albeit illegal, the plant grows in the wild in many areas, which has made it hard to control. In the lake areas, many tourists purchase the drug and smoke it in the privacy of their hotel rooms or homes. Tourists in Malawi known to shop for chamba in the Nkhotakota District which has a reputation for producing the best marijuana.
Illegal trade in chamba amounts to an estimated 0.2% of Malawi's GDP or K1.4 billion. The majority of the product is not used locally since it is primarily grown for an export market. Integration in the global market has resulted to unfair trade therefore Malawian growers are getting underpaid. Malawi farmers receive only about a fifth of the price for which it is being sold in foreign consumer markets. It does however, fetch more money than Malawis largest export, tobacco. Most growers do not sell it directly to the market themselves, but instead to national or international traffickers.
Cannabis was widely used by the entire population as an intoxicant and as medicine in treating conditions like anthrax, dysentery, fevers, malaria, or snakebites. Rastafari in Malawi now are the proponents that claim medicinal use of the chamba leaves. A research study entitled, "Patients' Perceptions of Chamba (marijuana) Use in Malawi" was conducted in Zomba Mental Hospital was published in the International Journal of the Addictions in 1998. It had it implications for the development of treatment and prevention programs for chamba users in Malawi.
Malawians have been using cannabis for recreational use for generations. The use of cannabis is particularly popular along the lake side. Many Malawians claim that cannabis helps them to relax and concentrate. Local students use cannabis to prevent pre-exam jitters. Police raids are common, however recreational use of cannabis remains unabated. Many backpackers and overlanders are attracted to Malawi due to recreational use of inexpensive cannabis.
Legal issues concerning usage
Growing, selling, using, or possessing cannabis is a criminal offense in Malawi. Although cannabis is illegal in Malawi, it is estimated to be the largest unofficial export. Malawian economists group the illegal export as one of the three 'Big C's' in Malawian exports chambo (fish), chombe (tea) chamba (cannabis)'. The growth in sales means that there are growers cultivating the drug illegally in Malawi due to the large profits they gain from its sales. However a recent World Bank study reported that Malawian farmers are being underpaid for their labor in the trade. The production and selling of chamba has been increasing in Malawi over the past few years. The efforts to curb its production and selling is also on the increase. Anti-drug unit is led by the Malawi Police Services that confiscate about 70,000 kilos of cannabis per year for the year 2010.
Below are the United Nations figures on number of cannabis seizures in Malawi from 1995 - 2000 published in the 2003 Institute for Security Studies Report:
Campaign to legalize cannabis
Rastafari in Malawi have gone to court to demand their right to smoke cannabis. In 2000, the government briefly explored the possible legalization of Indian hemp, despite police warnings of potential abuse by cannabis growers. This was championed in parliament by Deputy Minister of Agriculture Joe Manduwa who argued that the plant could be a valuable alternative to tobacco. The idea was supported by member of parliament and medical doctor, Hetherwick Ntaba who argued that it is non-addictive.
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