Malawi Cannabis is a major part of Malawian culture and lifestyle. Colloquially known as chamba, some of the finest sativas in Africa can be found here, and a small but significant tourist industry has sprung up as cannabis connoisseurs from all over the world venture there to sample the crop.
Law & International Policy
Cannabis is illegal in Malawi, but the country has consistently produced large illicit harvests for many years; after South Africa, Malawi produces the largest amount of cannabis in southern Africa (and after Morocco too, the third largest in Africa). Subsequent to a major police crackdown in 2000 on cannabis and other illegal drugs, seizures decreased dramatically (from 312 MT in 2000 to 86 MT in 2001), but since 2004 have been climbing back to their pre-crackdown levels. Despite the upward trend, there is significant fluctuation in total weight seized between years, with 25 MT seized in 2008 and just 1.4 MT in 2009 (UNODC).
Up until the 1930s, the authorities in Malawi did not focus their attention on cannabis—indeed, it was only after 1961, with the signing of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, that growers and traffickers became subject to punishment. Since then, the nation has struggled to impose order, with few resources and heavy dependence on foreign assistance.
International pressure is an important incentive for Malawian authorities—the wave of crackdowns commencing in 2000 were a direct result of criticism from member countries of the Southern Africa Development Committee (SADC) that the existing attitude to drug traffickers was too tolerant. Recently, police in the capital Lilongwe have been targeting those involved in the cannabis industry due to an “increase in the rate of crime in the city”.
The Cannabis Trade in Malawi
Malawi is one of the most impoverished and underdeveloped countries in the world, with a large rural population and an economy that is heavily dependent on agriculture. Around 80% of Malawi’s population is rural, and many crops grown there are commercial and intended for export—the biggest legitimate crops are tobacco, sugar cane, cotton and tea.
As well as having an economy and demographic structure ideal for the cultivation of cannabis, Malawi has a highly favourable climate. The higher price commanded by cannabis compared to other crops renders it attractive, despite the fact that just a tiny fraction of the ultimate retail price goes to the farmer—the lion’s share goes to the traffickers and distributors.
Where is Cannabis Produced in Malawi?
Much of the country is suitable for cannabis cultivation, from the hot, humid lowlands of the Great Rift Valley (the site of the vast and beautiful Lake Malawi) to the more temperate upland regions that surround it. Due to the extreme levels of poverty among Malawi’s rural populations, cannabis cultivation is increasingly attractive to farming communities, and cultivation sites have sprung up in many regions.
The main areas of cultivation in Malawi are found in the more temperate central and northern areas, particularly Nkhotakota district, the Likwawa Hills of Mzimba district, and to a lesser extent, the districts of Ntchisi, Kasungu Ntcheu and Dedza. The cultivation, consumption and trafficking of cannabis now constitutes the primary illicit activity in Malawi; women are generally involved in the production and processing of cannabis, and men are responsible for its sale and trafficking.
Malawi in the International Cannabis Market
Malawi is an important regional hub for cannabis, and exports to many other African countries—as well as Europe and beyond. Cannabis is thought to be Malawi’s third largest export, and comprises one of the three ‘C’s: chamba (cannabis), chombe (tea) and chambo (tilapia fish). Many of the neighbouring countries depend heavily on imported cannabis from Malawi as domestic production is insufficient—Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, to name just a handful.
As a result, members of the SADC have mounted a concerted effort to curb trafficking in the region, although with varying success. Nonetheless, crackdowns on cannabis growers in Malawi have caused many to flee from their traditional cultivation sites in order to relocate further up the mountains, where roads are non-existent, terrain is rugged and difficult to traverse, and police raids are less likely.
Landrace Cannabis Varieties of Malawi
Over the centuries, the various cannabis seeds brought to Malawi were bred together—either naturally or by human intervention—and a distinct landrace, now known as the Malawi Gold, began to emerge. This landrace is now very stable, and although there are several phenotypes the variations between them are largely superficial or related to subtle differences in taste and smell. However, a distinction can be made between the “woody” and “fruity” phenotypes: the former is usually taller and has a more stretched appearance, while the latter is shorter and bushier.
The Malawi Gold is unquestionably the most famous cannabis variety found in Malawi (and arguably the most famous in Africa), and is prized for its clear, cerebral high and delicate, sweet flavour. The Malawi Gold is a pure sativa, with slender, bright-green leaves and long, airy colas that are heavily dusted with small trichomes. As an equatorial sativa, the flowering time of Malawi Gold is remarkably high at around 17-18 weeks.
In Malawi, cannabis is harvested, trimmed and left in the sun to cure before being bound into a “cob”—wrapped in banana or maize leaves—for transportation and sale. Alternatively, cannabis may be wrapped into cobs when still moist; the cobs are then buried for several months in goatskin, manure or soil to create an altered cannabinoid profile, as well as an unusual and distinctive black colouration. Such cobs are known as “black magic” or Malawi Black, and are prized for their psychedelic effect.
Traditional Use of Cannabis in Malawi
It is thought that cannabis arrived in Malawi between the 10th and the 15th centuries, possibly brought by Arab or Portuguese traders (or the nomadic Bantu tribes that are found throughout southern Africa) from a range of potential points of origin including west Africa and Asia. It is believed to have been cultivated ever since.
By the time British colonists arrived at the shores of Lake Malawi in the mid-19th century, its use was widespread as a medicine and intoxicant. Livingstone observed cannabis being planted and smoked by the Malawi people in 1865, and at that time a significant cultural pattern of use had emerged, not just in Malawi but in almost every country in southern and eastern Africa.
Many myths and legends have sprung up surrounding cannabis and its use in Malawi. One of the most commonly-heard anecdotes is a tongue-in-cheek allusion to tourists that have come to Malawi, sampled the Gold and subsequently lost all desire to return to their home countries.
Modern Attitudes to Cannabis
The modern tourism industry that has sprung up around Malawi’s cannabis only began in the 1970s, as tourists on safari passed through the Great Rift Valley and stopped at the beautiful shores of Lake Malawi for rest and recreation. There they were able to sample the finest locally-grown cannabis, and they excitedly returned to their countries of origin, told their friends, and returned with them in tow. Development in Malawi’s tourism sector as a whole is increasing and infrastructure continues to improve, particularly in the Lake Malawi area. Currently,cannabis tourists are flocking to the region in ever greater numbers.
As well as foreign tourists, inhabitants of Malawi commonly use cannabis as a social intoxicant. There is even a branch of Malawian Rastafarians who are currently campaigning for its use to be legalised on spiritual grounds—they also cite rampant corruption within the police force as an important factor in maintaining prohibition, as profits are higher and opportunities for bribes and kickbacks higher still. However, police and authorities are on a trend for restriction and criminalisation of the cannabis market, and crackdowns have proven highly effective in the past. Further eradication efforts could well lead to a loss of genetic diversity in an already heavily-inbred population.
It is important to document the history and current events of the ongoing drug war in every country that it occurs—for this reason, organisations like the Hash Marijuana & Hemp Museum in Amsterdam are crucial, as they attempt to bring together information from various credible sources in order to provide the most accurate, up-to-date and unbiased information on the present global situation.