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Cannabis Is Illegal in Zambia, but Exporting It Is Totally Fine!

cannabis zambia
Written by Sarah Friedman

As countries change their cannabis legalization laws, sometimes the results show less interest in providing residents with a service, and way more interest in the economic value. Sometimes it’s so obvious, it can’t be ignored. Take Zambia, for instance.

The Republic of Zambia, or just Zambia, is located in south-central Africa, landlocked between the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Malawi, Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Mozambique. On October 24, 1964, Zambia won its independence from Great Britain, and is currently being led by its sixth president thus far, Edgar Lungu. Zambia has been known for copper mining and exporting metals and minerals.

Economically, the country relies on the mining of copper as well as other materials, agriculture, and the tourism industry as it is home to Victoria Falls. When copper mining became less popular in the 70’s, there was a lot of economic tension and poverty which Zambia began working to recover from. Zambia was praised by the World Bank in 2010 for its accomplishments in making economic reforms, however it once again faces growing debt with the threat of a big problem if it’s not mitigated quickly.

In fact, prior to 2018, an average of $8.4 billion was being added to the national debt each year, but that number increased to about $10.5 billion a year since 2018. Zambia has about 13 million residents, and a lot of languages spoken with English being the primary one. While cannabis was never noted as a key economic staple in Zambia’s the past, it very well might end up being one in the future.

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Zambia and cannabis law

Basically, recreational cannabis is illegal in Zambia. In fact, up until 2019, it was 100% illegal for all use. But then things changed.

Drug laws are governed in Zambia by Zambia’s Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1994. However the stipulations of this act have caused confusion which was highlighted in 2017. At that time, articles came out saying that cannabis could be cultivated by individuals for medicinal use according to the Home Affairs Minister. This was followed by articles saying that the Health Ministry in fact had no plans to green light a medical marijuana program.

It should be noted that under the law, citizens actually are able to apply to the Ministry of Health to request licensing for medical marijuana cultivation, but the government never made a framework for issuing such licenses, and most people never knew the law existed. Even with what was stated in the law, the Ministry of Health essentially said no in the end.

By December 2019, it didn’t matter anymore. A proposal to legalize marijuana was unanimously approved, only it wasn’t exactly standard in how it was approved, or, rather, what was approved. Recreational cannabis remains completely illegal under the new laws, however medicinal cannabis is legal, as well as exporting it. The licensing fee to grow is $250,000, and only some of those requesting permits will be allotted commercial licensing abilities to grow for exportation. Licenses to grow are issued by the Ministry of Health, while the Zambia National Service will supervise the cultivation operations.

Why the sudden change?

Going from absolutely illegal just a few years ago, to legal for medicinal use and exportation in 2019, is a pretty big jump. On the other hand, it’s not the first country, particularly in Africa, to quickly change laws around to open up new economies.

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When a country decides to go from something being totally illegal, to the legal use of selling it globally for profit, there’s an obvious economic intention. More than trying to find a way to provide their citizens with a product, they’re trying to drive their economy in a new direction.

With cannabis becoming more and more mainstream, creating a greater and greater demand for both recreational and medicinal varieties, it makes sense that agriculturally-minded countries, especially those with good habitable growing climates for cannabis, would take the bait. Particularly if those countries suffer economic difficulties and are looking for ways to boost their economies.

The country has been looking at a growing debt, and mounting fears of an all out financial crises. Since 2013, the Green party has been promoting cultivating and exporting cannabis with the hopes of bringing in $36 billion to Zambia annually.

A closer look at the economics

As mentioned earlier, the licensing costs for being able to cultivate cannabis for export is a massive $250,000. This price means that many of Zambia’s own farmers will likely be priced out of the industry, which gives the appearance that the real interest is in foreign investors. This isn’t incredibly uncommon as countries – particularly poorer ones – often look for foreign investments to bolster their economies.

In this case, it could potentially do quite a bit of damage to local farmers if they are kept from being able to participate in it by not being able to afford it. Along with this, it opens the door for both local and foreign criminal cartels to launder their money in the country, and make an immense amount of money at the expense of the locals. Perhaps this set-up will change in the future to be more beneficial to Zambian residents, but for right now it seems to be set up without them in mind.

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The changeover from such a staunchly illegal system, to one that is so much more open, was tantamount to taking a 180º turn. For a country that was destroying in the neighborhood of 60 tons of cannabis a year, and has a strong Christian undertone against it, the quickness of the turnaround certainly didn’t go unnoticed, and was not appreciated by all.

Nevertheless, one of the driving forces in changing legislation is often economic pressure. And as a country with economic issues, the growing ‘green rush’ presented to Zambia was enough to create this turnaround. Some research companies suggest the global legal cannabis industry could be worth up to $146 billion a year by 2025, with Africa topping $7.1 billion by 2023. With the constant changes in legislation in African countries relating to cannabis cultivation, coupled with the need of these countries to boost their economies, it’s also quite likely that these numbers could increase.

What about the medical cannabis part?

Good question! In all the reporting on Zambia’s decision to open the door for exporting cannabis, not much has been written about the other side of it. Sure, exporting cannabis is now legal, but that went along with a legalization for medical use within the country itself. As the laws were only passed late last year, it’s not weird or uncommon for it to take some time for a framework to be worked out and regulatory issues dealt with. This slower, more lax mentality has not been the case when it comes to exporting cannabis though, which once again points to this as being the main priority for Zambia.

For cannabinoids like CBD – cannabidiol – a non-psychoactive component of the cannabis plant which has been recently associated with being a possible treatment for a maelstrom of medical issues ranging from neurodegenerative diseases, to spastic disorders, to help with anxiety and insomnia, there isn’t a differentiation between that and the rest of the cannabis plant making it illegal.

Like in many countries, this is a basic technicality as the isolation of cannabinoids like CBD simply wasn’t accounted for when classifying cannabis into a drug group. Legally there is nothing specifically said about it at all, and it simply gets lumped with the rest of the plant, which includes the psychoactive cannabinoid THC, the main driver in the controversy for legalizing cannabis. Perhaps as the details of the medical cannabis plan are worked out, CBD will become as prevalent in Zambia as it is in other places.


Zambia is following the lead of other African nations by relaxing their laws on cannabis and instituting cannabis cultivation. Unlike other countries that took more time organizing rights to use it within their own borders, Zambia shrugged that idea off, skipping steps to get to market as fast as possible. How this will play out remains to be seen. It could be great for the economy, but awful for locals. It could bring in a certain amount of crime, but it could also provide jobs and income. One thing is for sure, the green rush of Africa is just beginning, and Zambia is pushing its way up front.

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About the author

Sarah Friedman

I look stuff up and and write stuff down, in order to make sense of the world around. And I travel a lot too.