Could Marijuana Help Africa’s Impoverished?

The answer to this question is a firm “YES.” Marijuana is widely used throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, and has been for generations. The climate and landscape are more than suitable for marijuana cultivation and the low maintenance nature of the crop makes it ideal for small farmers.

An article in the NYT today covered the growing market for marijuana growers in Swaziland, which feeds demand from surrounding South Africa. Growers of weed in Africa are principally women, used to the back breaking process of tending crops on small patches of land. Growing and selling even small amounts of weed can be a transformative boon to a single mother (or grandmother) struggling to raise several small children.

The illegal nature of marijuana, however, prevents women from demanding fair prices for crops. Small producers receive on a small percentage of the eventual price weed will fetch on the world market. They are forced to sell to a limited number of shady middlemen who are able to demand absurdly low prices for product. Legalizing weed, even in South Africa alone, would allow greater competition among middle men, raising prices paid at market.

The question of marijuana legalization has long been a subject of debate within Malawian politics. Joe Manduwa, a member of the Malawian parliament, called for even partial legalization of weed, pointing out the potential financial benefits. One of Malawi’s largest exports is marijuana, but its illegality prevents the government from taxing and collecting revenue on its sale. Moreover, Malawi is a destination for weed smoking tourists. As long of weed remains illegal, Malawian tour brochures can’t advertise the pleasures of smoking weed on the beautiful Lake Malawi. Weed could become an important source of foreign exchange and domestic revenue, but the Malawian government appears to be either sleeping at the wheel, or deathly frightened of angering the imperial forces of the US/British/Christian axis.

The worldwide export of US and British policy against marijuana is robbing impoverished households of the opportunity to produce saleable and sustainable agricultural products. To me, it’s unforgivable, as the risks of weed pale in comparison to those of legal and state sponsored alcohol and tobacco. The trouble with weed is that anyone can produce it, which violates the industrial centered models of beer and tobacco production, and thus undermines the imagined power of the state as a whole.

Policy makers here in the US must realized that their actions have strong repercussions for the rest of the world. Some old lady in Swaziland, desperately trying to raise her 11 grandchildren, is hoping to get a good price for a bale of weed.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

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