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The African Country on a Mission to Legalize Hemp (And Maybe Weed Too)

Good luck.

This story appears in the March issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

On May 18, 2015, Boniface Kadzamira, an independent member of parliament, stood up in Malawi's national assembly to make the case for the legalization of industrial hemp. "The whole house laughed at me. I was literally booed. They started saying that I've gone nuts," Kadzamira told me last October, looking out at the seats in the chamber, then empty. "My family and friends weren't happy either. They were asking, 'Why are you, a God-fearing person, talking about chamba?'" he laughed, using the local term for weed. "Even my wife was saying, 'I'm so ashamed. The neighbors are talking, saying you introduced this issue in the national assembly!'"

But Kadzamira is a calm and impressively patient man, not easily fazed. Nearly two years on, he is far from a victim of shame or ridicule. With the country's industrial hemp trials wrapping up in June, Malawi is expected to pass amendments to legalize hemp, weed's low-THC (non-psychoactive) cousin, this summer. Aside from the tireless campaigning by Kadzamira and his allies, a major catalyst for the proposed legalization is hope that hemp will revive Malawi's struggling economy, which is in a dire situation following a severe drought in southern Africa and decline in global tobacco consumption, its current cash crop. 

Hemp is an attractive alternative because thousands of products can be made from it. Legalizing it in Malawi would allow the country not only to cultivate the crop but also to establish a range of new industries based on it—at least in theory. It also feels like a natural choice for the home of "Malawi Gold," a strain of cannabis considered to be one of the world's finest. Despite its continued illegality, weed is actually alleged to be one of the country's major exports; nearly ten tons are seized annually.

Citizens of Malawi use cannabis widely, so those fighting for hemp legalization have the challenge of making the difference between chamba and industrial hemp as clear as possible. "Here, [chamba] is associated with mad people," explained Kadzamira, who told me about the resistance from local NGOs and religious groups his campaign has faced. 

When I was in Lilongwe, Malawi's capital, I met Kulimbamtima Chiotcha, from local NGO Drug Fight Malawi. She passionately believes more youths have started to consume weed since the issue was introduced in parliament, "because people in the rural areas do not know the difference between the plants. They are saying, 'The government has legalized chamba.'"

British entrepreneur Tanya Clarke runs Invegrow, the first company to campaign for the introduction of hemp in Malawi, procuring the first license to trial the crop in October 2015. "Any new crop or seed that comes to Malawi must be trialed, not just hemp," explained Clarke. This has included testing different varieties for THC content, observing reactions to different seasons, and getting to know the plant's water requirements. "Invegrow is funding everything," she said, laughing. "But the government has given us land and a researcher, and we have their blessing, which counts for a lot."

But getting to this stage hasn't been easy. "[The word] 'hemp' in Malawi refers traditionally to 'Indian hemp' or marijuana, not industrial hemp, as with the Northern Hemisphere," said Clarke. "So the terminology has been an issue, and we are trying to reclaim the word 'hemp' to explain the industrial variety."

But it's not only in Malawi that the hemp industry faces this challenge. Hemp was the world's largest agricultural crop until the early 19th century, favored for its climate adaptability, low impact on soil and water use, and diverse applications. Yet amid the wave of legalization of medicinal and even recreational cannabis across America, hemp remains very strictly monitored under US federal law—a throwback to the "reefer madness" anti-cannabis campaign of the late 1930s. This is holding back some other African governments from legalizing hemp, as they are "heavily reliant on things like World Bank grants and loans, and funding from USAID," said Tony Budden, hemp activist and co-founder of South African hemp outfit Hemporium. "If they feel this would be jeopardized, then they won't take the risk." Budden added that his country recently greenlit the legalization of medical cannabis, while, bizarrely, the struggle to legalize cultivation of its low-THC cousin continues. 

"In Malawi, the debate has ended up tackling the two issues together," Kadzamira said. "We are campaigning for industrial hemp, but some say it is no different from marijuana, so we cannot allow it, while others say let us not only allow industrial hemp, let us also allow marijuana, because it could change the economic status of our country." Like most hemp advocates, Kadzamira is open to legalizing both strains of the plant. This idea isn't new in Malawi either. It has made it to the forefront of the country's politics several times since the early 70s, when, according to Kadzamira, the Government of Independence leader, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, debated whether to establish tobacco or cannabis as the country's primary cash crop. But due to local sensitivities, Kadzamira remains wary of broadening the debate to include weed for now. "In the future, we have to think about it," he said. "But, for now, it's a very serious topic. It's an emotive issue, and we're trying as much as possible not to mix it with industrial hemp."

Boniface Kadzamira, a member of parliament shown here with his constituents, has led the charge toward legalizing hemp in Malawi. He sees the resource as a way to revive the country's struggling economy.

In his constituency, a rural area called Ntchisi North, Kadzamira is nothing short of a celebrity. We walked through the village followed by a small crowd, and he introduced me to chief council chair of the area Kelodon Chazama. I asked him about his views on cannabis , and he explained that his community continues to use it for medicinal as well as recreational purposes. "People here don't really think it's illegal, because we use it for curing our babies when they get measles," Chazama said. Echoing this sentiment, Dr. Gama Bandawe, a biologist at Malawi University of Science and Technology, later explained to me, "Cannabis has traditionally been used as medicine for epilepsy and is still used as such today." He added that, historically, older people also smoked it. "It would relieve pain, increase appetite, and would help the elders, who are the custodians of culture, when passing their knowledge on to the youth in the oral tradition through stories and proverbs."

But despite its well-known traditional uses, many other chiefs and religious leaders have opposed legalization of any type of cannabis. Dr. Bandawe describes these attitudes as a "colonial hangover" following decades of prohibition imposed by European colonialists, Christian missionaries, and the US-led global war on drugs.

One group that has not bought into anti-drug sentiment is Malawi's Rastafarians. At a reggae gig in Lilongwe, Rastafarian priest Ras Bongo Maseko told me why he wants his country to legalize industrial hemp and, eventually, chamba itself. "We want to teach people here that ganja is not just about smoking. There is medicinal value in ganja, and from the seeds, we extract oil. We can even make ganja milk, which is high in vitamins and calcium. For we Rastas, it is our food." Maseko said that as a Rastafarian, if weed was legalized, it wouldn't make much difference to him personally—his community will continue to use it as they do now. But he is passionate about educating his fellow Malawians about the plant and its uses. "We need to play our role as Rastas for the development of this nation," he said.

I traveled with Maseko to remote, sunbaked mountains in a district of Malawi known for cannabis cultivation. He talked to some farmers at one of the illegal plantations. "I was born in a chamba family, and so were my mother and father before me," explained one. "I trade some other crops such as cassava and maize, but my business thrives on the chamba I grow, and this feeds my family. It is our life."

Despite cannabis allegedly being one of Malawi's largest exports, the farmers here are not wealthy. Which begs the question: Who is taking the lion's share of the profits? The farmers don't know (or aren't willing to divulge), but many in Malawi suspect that, despite regular media reports of police raids on plantations, only the involvement of high-ranking members of government could allow so much weed to be cultivated in, and exported out of, this small country.

Maseko picked up a cannabis plant, which was uprooted and drying out in the sun. "These are some of the wasted trees I was talking about. It's a strong tree, and it produces fiber," he said, pulling apart the dead plant, which the farmers have discarded because they are only growing the plant for its buds for smoking.  "If we can empower and teach these farmers how to produce fiber out of these plants, they could sell it to the government to use in the new industry."

Whether the government eventually legalizes cannabis or just non-psychoactive industrial hemp, its advocates' demand that this natural resource must, at last, benefit Malawians. "Weed connoisseurs from around the world have come to Malawi and taken our local varieties, and now Malawi Gold can be found in coffee shops in Amsterdam and Canada and is even a popular sativa variety in Jamaica," said Dr. Bandawe. "And yet no Malawian can benefit from this multibillion-dollar resource. We created a condition that allowed total exploitation."

He believes one way to counter this, particularly as the hemp industry develops, is to "understand the genetics and biology of the local varieties so that we can generate new intellectual property." This is also something Invegrow is looking toward in the long term. Because of current laws in Malawi, the seeds being used in the trials are, ironically, foreign imports. "We are trialing all the cultivars we can get our hands on, but most have not been ideal because of the subtropical latitude of Malawi," said Invegrow director Tanya Clarke. "We need flexibility to breed our own industrial varieties in Malawi suitable for our latitude."

Ras Bongo Maseko, right, is a Rastafarian priest in Malawi. Chamba, as weed is called there, and hemp are integral to Rasta culture.

It's not, though, just about Malawi taking ownership of this "Gold"; it's about who in the country can make gains from it. Maseko believes that Rastafarians, who are a minority group often stigmatized in Malawi, must be central to the hemp industry due to their knowledge of the plant and its uses. "It's important because we know the amounts. We know how powerful hemp can be—so regulations are needed, prescriptions. It's the same as anything, even water; it will affect you if you consume too much. So we are trying to tell people that we don't want to abuse the substance. We want it to be used properly."

But Rastafarians are often pushed to the fringes of Malawian society. Children from Rasta families are not allowed to attend government schools if they have dreadlocks, and the police regularly target adult Rastafarians. And Kadzamira said that when he was photographed with some Rastafarian leaders in parliament, the reaction from other politicians and the media nearly jeopardized the whole industrial hemp campaign. So the risk is that Rastafarians in Malawi could be excluded from potential hemp and cannabis industries despite their knowledge and experience. In the US, minority communities have also been largely excluded from the increasingly legalized cannabis industry in the US. 

More broadly, there is some concern among Malawians that these industries will suffer a similar fate to the country's tobacco sector. I met Seven O More, a cool young music producer, in a DIY recording studio in Lilongwe, where he was putting the finishing touches on a song about the potential benefits of industrial hemp. But even he is skeptical about what change legalization will bring to ordinary Malawians. "They said that tobacco would improve the economy, but it only benefited a selected few and some foreign companies," he explained. "The rural masses and those in poverty did not benefit." 

"I would love not to repeat what happened with tobacco," said Kadzamira, who is all too aware of this risk, having worked in that industry before entering politics. Economic liberalization in the 90s opened up the Malawian tobacco market to international companies, which have since exploited the country and its farmers for low production costs and tariffs on unmanufactured tobacco. But, this time around, Kadzamira hopes Malawi will have more control over the industry, with investment "happening within the country, so that we don't export the raw hemp, and products are made here in Malawi." When the amendment to the law is passed, the government intends to publish guidelines for those planning to cultivate the crop and process licenses for investors. Clarke, of Invegrow, is keen to produce hemp products beneficial to Malawians, such as sustainable construction projects using "hempcrete" and hemp foods (high in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids), which she hopes big agencies like the World Food Programme and UNICEF will consider adopting. 

It's clear that indigenous seeds and local knowledge must be at the core of these industries if Malawi is ever to reclaim ownership of its "Green Gold." "Malawi is one of the countries that God blessed with a lot of natural resources. We've got good soil, good weather, and good people. We just haven't started putting them to good use," said Kadzamira. "I'm optimistic there is a future for Malawi, in Malawi."