Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - Growing world demand for marijuana is prompting a shift in Africa from crops such as coffee and tea to cannabis, resulting in food shortages and an increase in criminal activity, according to new studies.
The U.N. International Drug Control Program (UNDCP) said an estimated 147 million people -- 3.5 percent of the global population aged 15 and above -- used cannabis in 1998-2000.
Rising consumption is increasing the demand for more cultivation, the agency said.
Another body, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) said in a report this week that food shortages in Africa were becoming more serious because of a shift from growing crops for local consumption -- to cultivating cannabis.
It said southern African countries were key cultivators of the drug, but the trend was fast taking root in other parts of the continent too.
A South Africa-based research body, the Institute of Security Studies (ISS), said other factors fueling the cultivation of marijuana in Africa were poverty, the availability of vast unutilized lands, and lax policing.
The ISS said cannabis growers get modest returns from middlemen, enough to eke out a living. And because world prices of conventional crops have dropped, there is an added incentive to shift to cannabis production.
The ISS said the proceeds of marijuana grown in Africa are used to finance criminal activities in the continent and elsewhere.
Some proceeds have also been used to buy weapons for costly civil wars in the Ivory Coast, Liberia and the Central African Republic.
The UNDCP says that another consequence of the stepped-up drug activity in Africa has been a rise in violent crime, corruption, bank fraud and social decay.
INCB representative Beate Hammond said the economic and environmental impact of cannabis cultivation, seen in deforestation and the abandonment of traditional crops, was a matter of great concern.
In some areas, criminal gangs acting in collaboration with corrupt officials, clear interiors of tropical forests to set up cannabis farms away from the public eye.
The fact that farmers are abandoning growing traditional crops and even cash crops has resulted in a shortage of food available to local markets. Imported food is usually expensive in Africa, she said.
The INCB report says South Africa and Morocco are the major cannabis producers. Most smugglers take the drug to Europe, via Spain, or across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab world.
Cannabis is a relaxant or mildly hallucinogenic drug which historians say has been used for more than 6,000 years.
Parts of the cannabis plant have also been used for rope fiber, a livestock food supplement, cooking oil
Campaigners in some Western countries are pressing to have the drug legalized, or at least permitted for medicinal (pain relief) purposes.
Medical marijuana opponents say it sets users on a road to more dangerous drugs, such as heroin, while proponents argue that there is no conclusive evidence to support that claim.
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