Pubdate: Wed, 29 Oct 2003
Source: Inter Press Service (Wire)
Copyright: 2003 IPS-Inter Press Service


BLANTYRE, Oct 29 (IPS) - Malawi police are losing the battle against
crafty marijuana smugglers, who have evaded a nationwide clampdown by
transporting the popular narcotic in hearses, coffins and ambulances,
with the support of some rogue government officials.

Police spokesperson, George Chikowi, told IPS in an interview that
Malawi remains one of Africa's largest producers, despite concerted
efforts to rid the country of the illicit crop.

"Malawi remains the second largest marijuana producer in Southern
Africa, after South Africa. This is despite our best efforts to
clampdown on the production, trafficking and consumption of
marijuana," said Chikowi.

To evade the police, the majority of the growers have retreated to the
remote mountainous areas where there are no good roads.

The police have been tipped off that some of the larger syndicates are
hiding their marijuana amongst the country's massive tea, coffee and
sugar plantations, Chikowi said.

"It's the traffickers who are coming up with the most innovative
scheme to avoid detection. They're transporting the stuff in coffins
inside hearses, and have even equipped their own ambulances to get
through roadblocks and discourage proper searches," said Chikowi.

Some of the drug barons 'bribe junior police officers' to transport
hemp in police vans, he said. The officers accept the risk as a way of
supplementing their meagre salary of less than 200 U.S. dollars a month.

"These gangs are also using people's aversion to cemeteries and are
using graveyards as their storehouses or distribution points," Chikowi

Six drug traffickers were recently arrested at Nkhotakota, central
Malawi, with 28 large bags of marijuana in a cemetery. The consignment
was allegedly on its way from Malawi's commercial capital, Blantyre,
to South Africa via a back road network of trucks, ambulances, ferries
and hearses.

The six were napped after villagers became concerned with the
defilement of their cemetery.

Such arrests are unlikely to deter the other farmers in Nkhotakota
from growing the herb, which is more lucrative than tobacco, Malawi's
main cash crop.

"Tobacco prices are very low on the world market. And, since Malawi
depends on agriculture, what other cash crop can I grow to bring me
more money?" asks 42 year-old Ngambo Nkulu (not his real name). He has
declined to disclose his name for fear of arrest.

Chikowi said the police are planning to declare total war on illicit
trafficking by chartering a South African police or military aircraft
to destroy marijuana plantations in remote parts of Malawi. He said
the police need spray planes and helicopters because marijuana
plantations in remote parts of Malawi are inaccessible by road.

"It is our desire to carry out such an operation, if we have financial
resources to hire the chopper. We believe this type of operation can
successfully curb the supply, source and the illicit trafficking of
Indian hemp (marijuana). Our intention is not to reduce, but to
eradicate the cultivation, smoking, supply and transport of Indian
hemp," said Chikowi, adding that Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland and South
Africa are the region's biggest producers.

"We also need cars and investigators to spend some months in the bush
where hemp is grown," he said.

Despite the transport difficulties, Chikowi said the police have
carried out several raids across the country. During their last raid
in November last year, the police raided farms in the Nkhotakota and
Mzimba districts in central and northern Malawi respectively, where
they destroyed over 663,000 marijuana plants, worth over 61,000

A UN Development Programme report released late last year indicates
that the marijuana is under cultivation in at least 156,000 hectares
of land in Malawi.

A study by Peter Gastrow of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security
Studies, titled 'Mind-blowing: The Cannabis Trade In Southern Africa',
says South Africa is the fourth largest producer in the world. The
report says during 2000 the South African Police Service seized
718,000kg of the drug - 16 percent of the world total confiscated by
the police. In 2001, 496,000kg of dagga worth R450 million (around 65
million U.S. dollars) was seized.

"Of significance for this study is the United Nations' conclusion that
nearly a quarter of the cannabis seizures worldwide between 1999 and
2000 occurred in southern Africa. In 2000 the large global increase
was mainly the result of seizures in some African countries,
specifically South Africa (718 tonnes), Malawi (312 tonnes) and
Nigeria (272 tonnes).

"The UN further found that Africa's share of global seizures increased
from approximately 10 percent to 32 percent, while the share of the
Americas decreased from 80 percent to 61 percent. In short there
appears to have been a global upsurge in demand for cannabis and a
corresponding increase in supply, increasingly from southern Africa,"
the report says.

Malawi police statistics show that 80 percent of the annual production
of marijuana finds its way across the borders to the lucrative South
African market. Some of it ends up in European and American markets.

Malawi's brand of cannabis which contains cannabenoids - a chemical
substance that has the power of changing people's moods - is believed
to be one of the most potent in the world.

The fight against marijuana cultivation, consumption and trafficking
has further been complicated by Rastafarians, who are pressuring the
government to legalise the herb.

The Rastafarians, who wear their hair in dreadlock, are seeking
assistance from the Malawi Ombudsman to help them legalise dagga,
which they say is used as part of their religion.

Rastafarians are followers of a religion from Jamaica which teaches
that black West Indians will return to Africa and that Haile Salassie,
the former emperor of Ethiopia, is to be worshipped.

Statistics at Zomba Mental Hospital, Malawi's only mental asylum
indicates that six in ten mentally deranged inmates there have
admitted to smoking marijuana.

"Our sole mental asylum is already crowded with people who have become
lunatics because of hemp, therefore, I cannot fight for the
legalisation of the weed," Chibwana said.

"I cannot fight for a group of people who would like to increase the
number of lunatics in this country," he said.

Police spokesperson Chikowi agreed. "No one should hide under the
pretext of religion to break the law in this country," he said.

One of the Rastafarians, with an adopted name of Natty Lame, told
Blantyre Magistrate Court that as long as the Constitution of Malawi
recognised freedom of religion, he would continue to puff "the weed".

"The president of this country (Bakili Muluzi)," Natty Lame told the
court, "says everywhere he goes that there is freedom of worship in
Malawi. I, as a Rasta, I use 'chamba' (the local name for marijuana),
to worship my God".

Spicing up his speech with Rastafarian dialect like 'Jah', 'Rastafari'
and 'Yeah Man', Natty Lame claimed that even the Bible authorises
smoking the herb.

He was sentenced to two years imprisonment.

Interestingly, the Rastafarians have an ally in the ruling United
Democratic Front parliamentarian and former deputy agriculture
minister, Joe Manduwa, who at one time asked Parliament to legalise
the cultivation of hemp to boost the country's foreign earnings.

"It's high time Malawi resorts to growing hemp to boost its foreign
earnings," said Manduwa.

The idea was shot down by his fellow legislators. 
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