May 1, 2017
LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — Maiko Zulu grows maize, but he’d rather be growing marijuana.
He stands in a field and points to his produce.
“Even if I sold every corn out of it, I can’t make anything,” he says.
But if that field were filled with marijuana leaves, he adds, “I would be talking of exporting today.”
Since 1994, Zambia has had a law that, in theory, allows for licensing of legal marijuana cultivation. But not one person has been granted a license, seemingly because few people were aware that the law exists. The government doesn’t even have a framework for issuing the licenses.
The law became a point of public interest in February, when Minister of Home Affairs Stephen Kampyongo noted in a statement to Parliament that it’s possible to get a license to grow medicinal marijuana. The statement was made in response to efforts by the Zambia Medical Association to get the government to allow cultivation of the plant.
After the Zambia Medical Association said that it is high time Zambia started growing medicinal marijuana, a debate ensued in the country, forcing the minister to give a statement.
Kampyongo’s statement led to a rush among people who want to legally grow marijuana, but so far no one has been given permission to do so.
“We are dealing with a substance that can be highly prone to abuse, so as a country (and) as a sector (of the) Ministry of Health, we have to be cautious,” says Ministry of Health spokesman Dr. Kennedy Malama.
Dr. Aaron Mujajati, president of the Zambia Medical Association, applauds the minister’s clarification that it’s possible to legally grow medicinal marijuana.
“People are already cultivating illegally so why not legalize it so that we can explore it and enjoy the benefits?” he says.
Meanwhile, arrests related to marijuana cultivation and seizures of the plant and its related products have decreased, but remain common.
About 132 tons of marijuana was seized and 182 people were arrested for its cultivation in 2015, says Theresa Katongo, the public relations officer at the Drug Enforcement Commission, a government body assigned with the prevention and control of illicit drugs and substances in the country.
In 2016, 172 people were arrested and 59.9 tons of marijuana was seized, she says.
Katongo adds that the decrease in people arrested and marijuana seized might be due to more awareness of the penalties of growing the plant illegally.
People found guilty of marijuana cultivation face a fine of no less than 500 penalty units, which amounts to 150 Zambian kwacha (about $16), or imprisonment not exceeding 10 years, or both.
Marijuana is in high demand in Africa. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime World Drug Report of 2015, marijuana ranks first among the drug types for which people on the continent enter treatment for drug use.
But globally, nations are increasingly considering marijuana legalization, particularly for medicinal uses. (Read our coverage on marijuana legalization here.)
Many of Zambia’s illegal marijuana growers are farmers, says Francis Kayula, the director general of the National Union for Small-scale Farmers of Zambia.
Now that the government has clearly stated its position on growing medical marijuana, Kayula says his union will encourage members to seek licenses to grow marijuana legally because it’s a profitable crop.
Zulu, who is also a musician, is encouraged by the government’s shifting attitude toward marijuana. He says he hopes control measures will be created to ensure that the plant and its products aren’t abused, but notes that the plant plays a key role in some cultures and belief systems.
Zulu is a member of the Ngoni group, in which marijuana has been used for generations. He also practices Rastafari, a religion in which marijuana has a role.
“We burn it for meditation just like Christians use incense,” he says. “It’s also spiritual on my part.”