Malawi is ready to begin commercial production and processing of cannabis for medicinal and industrial use, the southern African country’s new Cannabis Regulatory Authority announced on Tuesday.

Malawi joins a growing number of countries around the world — including Southern African states Zambia, Lesotho and Zimbabwe – that are either legalizing or relaxing laws on cannabis as attitudes towards the drug.

Malawi’s parliament passed a bill in February that legalized cultivation and processing of cannabis for medicines and hemp fiber used in industry, but the law stopped short of decriminalizing recreational use of the drug.

The board chair of the country’s regulator, Boniface Kadzamira, said his board had received more than 100 applications for licensing which were under review.

The licensing fees will range from $100 to $10,000 a year for the cultivation, selling, storage, distribution of either class of industrial and medicinal hemp, the agriculture ministry said on Friday.

According to the minister’s gazette dated Nov. 20, public hospitals will pay $100 and private hospitals $200 as license fees to dispense cannabis medicines.

“We have received an overwhelming response in terms of applications for licences, but applicants must appreciate that we’ll not give everyone a licence at once,” said Kadzamira.

He said hemp – a strain of the cannabis plant that contains little or no tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the substance that makes people high – has the potential to surpass earnings from tobacco, touted as the country’s main export crop.

“Our view as regulator is that if we get honest investors, the hemp industry can supplement export revenues from tobacco, and in some cases, surpass it. But it will not immediately replace tobacco,” he added.

Malawi’s earnings from tobacco have fallen dramatically over the years in part due to declining demand and poor weather.

During the 2020 season, Malawi’s tobacco output fell by 31.3%, resulting in a 26.4% decline in the country’s overall tobacco revenues.

The fall has drastically affected the country’s tobacco auctioneer, Auction Holdings Ltd, which has failed to pay salaries for the last two months.

It is expected that production of cannabis will boost the country’s struggling economy and cover for the drop in tobacco earnings.

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