Lesotho grants continent's first license to grow and sell marijuana
Several other African countries exploring legalization
Marijuana could make a valuable economic contribution in several cases
Zimbabwe has just legalized growing marijuana for medicinal and research purposes – and several other African governments are considering tapping into the lucrative natural resource too.
More than 10,000 tons of cannabis are produced on the continent each year, according to a UN survey, which advocates believe could be worth billions of dollars in a rapidly expanding global market for legal weed.
African governments have not yet followed the trend of legalization seen in Europe and the Americas. However last year, Lesotho became the continent’s first country to offer legal licenses to grow marijuana, signaling a wider shift toward more liberal policies.
From Morocco to South Africa, there is growing interest in cashing in on a valuable crop. But in each case there are unique challenges to face.
The southern African country has become the second nation on the continent to legalize the production of marijuana for scientific and medicinal use.
Known locally as “mbanje,” Zimbabweans can now apply for a license to cultivate marijuana.
Previously, possessing, growing or using cannabis in Zimbabwe was illegal, and could come with sentences of up to 12 years in jail.
The renewable license permits companies and individuals to produce marijuana for five years.
The tiny, landlocked nation has few natural resources. But Lesotho is a giant of the marijuana trade.
“Cannabis is grown almost everywhere in the country,” a UNESCO report found, noting the industry is a leading contributor to the economy in a country plagued by poverty. Much of this comes through illicit trade with Lesotho’s larger, richer neighbor, South Africa.
The government has now signaled its intentions to bring the business out of the shadows by awarding the first license for cultivation and sale to South African alternative medicine company Verve Dynamics.
However, no formal steps have been taken to legalize or regulate the vast network of existing farmers and traders.
The North African state is famous for its hashish and is second only to Afghanistan as a producer of the substance, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The trade employs at least 800,000 people, according to Bloomberg, and is worth $10 billion a year in sales.
Such dizzying numbers have underpinned a growing movement for legalization. In 2014, an opposition party in the Moroccan parliament with close ties to the monarchy proposed a bill to legalize marijuana production for medical and industrial use.
But the bill failed, and the movement suffered a further setback with the resignation of leading advocate Ilyas El Omari. There has also been opposition to legalization from conservative religious groups, and even cannabis farmers who are concerned their crop might lose value.
Malawi is well known for the prevalence and quality of marijuana production within its borders, including the sought after “Malawi Gold” strain.
The government is now cultivating hemp on a trial basis, ahead of potential legalization of the non-psychoactive cannabis strain for industrial uses such as fabric and food products. This represents a major development after a lengthy battle with drug control groups and religious leaders that fiercely opposed any softening of policy.
Both advocates and critics of legalizing hemp have suggested that marijuana could be next, a longstanding demand of the country’s Rastafarian minority, which claims that smoking ‘chamba’ is integral to their culture.