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Malawi Hemp Cultivation Sparks Debate

FILE - Biomass company CEO Ed Lehburger examines a barrel of shredded hemp on the way to being turned into pulp and used for paper and other products, at Pure Vision Technology, a biomass factory in Ft. Lupton, Colo., May 19, 2015.

Malawi’s government has approved growing industrial hemp for export on a trial basis. The decision followed years of heated debate, and the proposal continues to meet resistance from anti-drug activists and religious leaders.

Hemp resurfaced on the agenda in May when parliament member Boniface Kadzamira asked lawmakers to reconsider the plant's economic potential.

Industrial hemp can be used to make paper, fabric, soap, medicine and even food products. Kadzamira said it is different than marijuana, known locally as chamba.

“And you know when you talk about chamba in Malawi people think of madness [and] crime but now when time has gone by people have understood that this is purely a commercial crop,” explained Kadzamira.

But the move has anti-drug campaigners worried.

“That will just give youths and access to marijuana and the country will have so many problems like shootings and suicides as it is in some states in the U.S., like California," said Nelson Zakeyu, director of the local NGO, Drug Fight Malawi.

However, industrial hemp has a different composition from marijuana, said Tony Burden, the director of a South African company, Herbarium.

“We will have to bring in certified low-drug varieties. They come from Europe so we have to see if they can grow here in Malawi,” he stated. “If they don’t grow then will have to go around Malawi to see if maybe there is also industrial hemp in Malawi or we can see if we can make new varieties that can grow well for Malawi’s climate.”

Jospeh Chidanti, deputy chairperson of the parliamentary committee on agriculture, told local radio that hemp will boost the economy.

“I understand the money it fetches is more than what tobacco would fetch for a given unit area. So we think that if we go this direction, we might surpass what even what we get from tobacco,” he said.

Religious leaders disagree.

“Whether it is going to boost the economy or not, it is not acceptable,” said Dinala Chabulika, spokesperson for the Muslims Association of Malawi. "There is [a] no to any person in Islam to any drug that would disturb the intelligence of the human being. So our position is that it should not be done.”

The government has authorized trial cultivation of industrial hemp starting next year at Chitedze Agriculture Research Station in the capital Lilongwe.