By Raphael Tenthani, BBC News
Blantyre, Malawi — The good times have ceased to roll for tobacco, Malawi’s chief foreign exchange earner.
Faced by a growing anti-smoking lobby, growers are finding it increasingly difficult to make profits because of rocketing costs and dwindling auction floor prices.
Faced with this reality, agricultural experts are advising alternative crops, such as the increasingly popular spice, paprika.
But the government is now exploring uncharted waters by looking at the legalisation of Indian hemp, despite police wanings of potential abuse by cannabis growers.
Indian hemp is part of the same family as cannabis, and is indistinguishable in appearance from its hallucinogenic relatives.
“Indian hemp has other important uses that can earn this country a lot of foreign exchange.”
– Joe Manduwa
Deputy Minister of Agriculture Joe Manduwa surprised MPs when he stood up in parliament recently to champion Indian hemp’s legalisation.
Mr. Manduwa, a member of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF), told MPS that Malawi stood to gain a great deal from cultivating the plant, which he said was a much-sought-after commodity on the world market.
And he told the BBC he believed the plant could be a valuable alternative to tobacco.
“Indian hemp has other important uses that can earn this country a lot of foreign exchange, as happens in other countries that have already taken strides in this direction,” he said.
He said, for instance, that more than 200 companies around the world are scouting for suppliers of the plant, whose fibres are used to manufacture a wide-range of items like textiles, ropes, paper and comestics.
He observed that while many of Malawi’s cash crops, including tobacco and cotton, need a lot of chemicals and insecticides to treat, whereas Indian hemp can grow with very little care and requires no insecticides at all.
But his call comes amid police reports that a lot of Malawians are abusing the cannabis drug.
Police spokesman Oliver Soko said the hallucinogenic variant, which is cheap to grow, is a major contributor to people entering the country’s psychiatric hospitals.
But the deputy minister, who is an accomplished farmer himself, was unfazed, saying the end justified the means.
“We are here talking about a non-narcotic herb on which you can’t get high even if you smoke it,” he said.
However, social workers Hastings Maloya said Malawi lacked the means to guard against abuse.
Even if the deputy minister says he advocates the non-narcotic brand, how sure is he that growers won’t throw in the “hot stuff”, Mr. Maloya asks.
The problem is that Indian hemp’s narcotic relative, also known to users as Malawi gold, is so popular that since the beginning of this year three tourists – two Britons and a Dutch national – have been arrested trying to smuggle it into Europe.
Police spokesman Oliver Soko said legalising the cultivation of Indian hemp would be a nightmare for the police service since it would be difficult to draw a line on whether people are abusing it or not.
Opposition MP Heatherwick Ntaba, of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), backed the call for legalisation.
“There are so many things that are produced from Indian hemp,” he said.
Mr. Ntaba, himself a medical doctor, also mentioned the medicinal value in taking Indian hemp, adding hastily that any behavioural problems could be controlled if proper mechanisms are put in place.
Mr. Manduwa said the Malawi Government should take a lead from the South African Government which, he claimed, was relaxing its laws on hemp cultivation.
According to South Africa’s Farmer’s Weekly magazine, the Eastern Cape province has come up with a scheme called “Rope Not Dope” where millions of rands have been invested to explore the commercial use of the plant.
The magazine says thousands of jobs will be generated following this scheme.
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