The cultivation of cannabis for medicinal and industrial uses was legalized on Thursday with the passage of a bill by the country’s Parliament. The move comes as the southern African nation seeks to find alternatives to the country’s top export tobacco, which is waning in popularity globally with the success of anti-smoking campaigns.

“Legalization of this crop will contribute to economic growth as it will contribute in the diversification of the economy and boost the country’s exports, especially at this time when tobacco exports are dwindling,” said agriculture minister Kondwani Nankhumwa.

The measure passed by lawmakers legalizes the cultivation of cannabis for the production of medicines and hemp fiber. The recreational use of cannabis will still be against the law.

The bill also establishes the nation’s Cannabis Regulatory Authority, which will issue licenses to cultivate, process, distribute, and export the crop. The agency will also issue permits to conduct scientific research on cannabis.

Paliani Chinguwo, who has advocated for the legalization of cannabis in Malawi for decades, said that the movement has a long history.

“It dates back to as far as 1992-93 during the transition from one-party state when Rastafarians started to emerge in public to articulate the enormous benefits of cannabis and agitate for the legalization,” Chinguwo told the Associated Press.

Stiff Penalties for Unlicensed Grows

Cultivating, distributing, and processing cannabis will still be illegal and carry steep penalties including a prison sentence of up to 25 years and a fine of the equivalent of nearly $70,000. In the town of Nkhotakota, police recently burned three tons of marijuana that was confiscated from dealers last year.

“The hemp is continuously being illegally grown in remote parts of Malawi and smuggled out of the country, and part of what is confiscated accumulates in the police stores and burning it is necessary to free up space,” said Nkhotakota police spokesman Williams Kaponda.

The Malawi government authorized two companies to conduct research trials on cannabis cultivation for medicinal and industrial uses seven years ago. At the same time, the Malawi Hemp Association formed to work with the government in the creation of cannabis policy and legislation. Chauncy Jere, a spokesman for the association and a director of Ikaros Africa, one of the companies authorized to conduct hemp research, praised the passage of the bill.

“We are very happy that finally we’re taking the right steps to move the country’s economy forwards,” said Jere. “There’s no denying that cannabis would be a lucrative industry and its demand is huge.”

Malawi joins several other African nations that have made recent changes to cannabis policy, including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Zambia.

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