28 Aug - 3 Sep 2015 #773

High time to lift ban

Nepal may need to rethink its 40-year-old law banning the cultivation of cannabis
Sarthak Mani Sharma

There are peals of laughter from a dim tavern in one of Patan’s narrow alleyways. Wafting through the small eatery is the distinct aroma of marijuana. A man with a joint in his hand mumbles something incoherent, and the owner suddenly looks alarmed. “I don’t allow marijuana here. I want him to leave,” he explains.

Fifty years ago, these men who are now feared in Kathmandu’s restaurants would be welcomed at Freak Street in shops called ‘Your Old & Favorite Hashish Centre.’ In the 1960s and early 70s, cheap and potent marijuana drew thousands of hippies to Kathmandu where they could readily buy one-kilogram boxes of the downer at a pittance.

In 1976, mostly under pressure from the American government which was worried about its young citizens becoming dope addicts, Nepal banned the use and sale of marijuana. The decision had far-reaching implications: the hippies left, tourism was hit, the government lost tax revenue, farmers lost a lucrative cash crop, and the trade in hash went underground, criminalising a legitimate livelihood.

In fact it is said that one of the reasons for the rapid spread of the Maoist revolution in 1996 was that the government’s ban on the production of cannabis was so stringent that it angered the Kham Magars who cultivated it as a major cash crop.

Fast forward 40 years and the very country that got Nepal to ban cannabis cultivation has now legalised it for both medical and recreational uses in some of its states. Some Latin American and other countries have also legalised the drug. In Nepal, however, a major cash crop remains illegal.

Experts have always maintained that the ban created more problems than it solved. The well-documented ‘balloon effect’, for example is a grave problem as people switched to more harmful opiates.

Rabi Raj Thapa, a retired Additional Inspector General (AIG) with the Nepal Police, explains: “When one drug is banned, consumption of another drug may rise. There is also so much corruption and criminality in the drug trade right now that it is time for the government to rethink its policies on marijuana.”

In the 1970s, the ban initially raised the price of cannabis and then heroin, and local users moved to a dangerous mix of cheap prescription drugs known as ‘Nepali cocktail’. Nepal, with its lax laws and corrupt enforcement, became a notorious transit point for drug smuggling to India, Europe, Japan and Australia. High-profile Nepalis were named or arrested in the West on smuggling charges.

The underground trade of the drug is now in the hands of shady criminals, who are known to lace it with chemicals. Marijuana today is six to eight times stronger than it was in the 1960s and 70s. Though police often conduct arrests (779 kg of hashish was seized in the first six months of this year alone) some Kathmandu restaurants still allow their customers to smoke marijuana. A manager at a popular eatery in Patan says he just keeps the police on a retainer to avoid raids.

Taken in moderation, marijuana is said to be less dangerous than alcohol and may be even less harmful than coffee in terms of dependence and withdrawal symptoms. Its healing properties are also well known. Health workers in Nepal say that marijuana helps HIV/AIDS patients by stimulating appetite and relieving pain.

Nikhil Gurung of Recovery Nepal told this paper that marijuana also helps people get rid of their addiction to hard drugs. Recently, the US government itself acknowledged that cannabis can help kill cancer cells.

To be sure, Nepal has legalised the drug for medical purposes under prescription, but how much of it is allowed is not specified. 

Experts say legalising and taxing marijuana may also be an effective way for the government to raise revenue. Another benefit of regulation is that the government can control the quality of the drug, asking licensed suppliers to indicate the amount of THC (marijuana’s psychoactive element) on the drug.

Legalisation could spawn other problems, though. It is not clear if open availability of marijuana will increase the number of addicts. In a country that is known for lax regulation, legalisation may end up encouraging impunity.

But we may have to believe a retired police officer like Thapa when he says: “The benefits of legalisation outweigh the harm. It is high time we legalised it.”

Parsa lesson

Before 2011, cannabis plantation was so common in Parsa district that elections, weapons, dowries – almost everything was financed by drug money. Sixty per cent of the arable land in Parsa was under cannabis and poppy, and their trade was controlled by Indian mafia from across the border.

District police chief at the time, Rajendra Man Shrestha, resolved to put an end to the cultivation. His efforts bore fruit: cannabis and opium cultivation went down by 95 per cent.  “You will not see a single cannabis plant in Parsa now,” he told Nepali Times in 2011.

As is customary for competent officials, Shrestha was transferred to another district soon after. Now the drugs are back. The Indian drug mafia also moved to mid-western mountains to source opium. Last year, 45 per cent of inmates in Birganj prisons were doing time for hard-drugs including heroin and opium.

Read also:

New opium epicenter, Damodar Bhandari

From poppies to paddy, Rubeena Mahato