Kigali. Rwanda has approved the cultivation and export of cannabis, a highly addictive herb often smoked or mixed with food, but which is still considered an illicit drug by the country's laws.
The government's decision could be controversial, considering the country's tough stance on narcotics, with daily arrests of consumers and traffickers of marijuana.
On Monday, a day before it was approved, three women were arrested for peddling the substance.
Authorities said they suspected them to be "drug dealers" in Rubavu District after they were caught with 1,800 pellets of cannabis.
Rwanda's health minister Daniel Ngamije said despite government's intention to profit from the production and export of narcotics, it would continue to be illegal in certain instances.
"This will not give room to drug abusers and dealers. The law against narcotics is available and it will continue to be enforced," Dr Ngamije said on Rwanda Broadcasting Agency on Tuesday.
A Cabinet meeting chaired by President Paul Kagame on Monday authorised the regulatory guidelines on cultivation, processing and export of "high value therapeutic crops".
The regulatory document could not be accessed by press time, but a source from the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) told the Nation that cannabis was the crop being referred to.
The RDB last year invited companies to bid for the development of "medical cannabis" in Rwanda with focus on exports.
Authorisation to produce and distribute narcotic drugs will be given only if their use is limited to medical and research purposes only, according to the law governing narcotics and psychotropic substances.
The law states every authorised private or public enterprise can only retain the quantities of narcotics drugs that are necessary for the smooth running of the enterprise. But there is a contradiction in the laws, experts point out.
Legally, the production or sale of cannabis is prohibited in Rwanda.
Doctors are also banned from prescribing it and doing so could land them in jail for two years and see them pay a fine of about Rwf3 million (about $3,000) under article 266 of the penal code.
Use of narcotics attracts a jail term of two years while drug dealers face between 20 years and life in prison, besides a fine of up to Rwf30 million ($30,000).
Experts say the government's latest stance will require an amendment of the penal code and mass sensitisation as the people of Rwanda have always considered cannabis a taboo.
"Basically, the government is authorising the production of illegal drugs. The penal code should have been amended before the government came up with this decision to allow mass production of cannabis for export. The law must be clear, but it is instead creating confusion," Mr Louis Gitinywa, a constitutional lawyer based in Kigali, told the Nation.
"There should now be some form of legal framework to support this decision and to explain to the citizens how this will work."
Researchers say use of illicit drugs is an increasing problem in Rwanda, with police arresting drug users and traffickers on a daily basis.
In his 2018 concept paper titled Drug use as a hindrance to socio-economic development in Rwanda, researcher Gonzague Isirabahenda noted that illicit drug use is now one of the major challenges for the Rwandan youth.
"A significant portion of these young people eventually gets addicted, posing a threat to their own health and safety, while creating difficulties for their families and the public at large," he says in his research.
In East Africa, Tanzanians consume more cannabis than any of their peers, with up to 3.6 million Tanzanians using the drug in 2018, according to New Frontier Data, a research firm based in the UK.
Kenya follows closely with 3.3 million cannabis users while Uganda has 2.6 million consumers, the report says.
In 2018, Africa recorded $37 million worth of cannabis consumption, which represents a small fraction of the $345 billion global market for cannabis, according to New Frontier Data.