‘Highly anticipated’: Activists stoked as government announces feasibility study plan for medicinal marijuanaThe herb has, for ages, been part of Nepali life as it was consumed as spice, medicine and made into clothes.
When Finance Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat hashed out the details of the government’s fiscal plan on a characteristically sober note, marijuana lightened up the mood.
He said the government would carry out a feasibility study for marijuana farming for medicinal purposes in the upcoming fiscal year. Inside the Parliament, where the minister was reading out the budget document, echoes of laughter went up in the air and the finance minister himself couldn’t help but chuckle, leading some sceptics to question later on social media if he was under the influence. That’s highly improbable, albeit Nepali leaders often bash out statements that make one scratch their heads and exclaim, ‘What are you smoking!’
For many, however, it is not entirely a laughing matter. In many ways, the finance minister’s announcement is a watershed in the movement for legalisation of cannabis in the country with a storied past of ganja trade and tourism. Over the past few years, there have been growing calls to legalise the herb in Nepal, citing its medicinal and economic potential.
This aligns with the wave of legalisation across the world, from the US and Canada to Thailand. With the fiscal budget presented on Monday, the Nepal government has opened the door for something similar. “We will carry out a feasibility study for ganja cultivation for medicinal purposes,” Mahat told Parliament.
Though this is not the first time ‘ganja talk’ made it to Parliament, it is the first time an incumbent minister took it up. It took five decades of criminalisation for the country to come to this point. Nepal had criminalised marijuana in 1973, ceding to the American pressure when the country led by Richard Nixon was high on spreading its ‘war on drugs’ across the world. According to Narcotics Drug Control Act 1976, anyone in possession of cannabis will land in prison and be slapped a fine of up to Rs25,000.
The finance minister’s announcement didn’t come out of the blue. It followed years of sustained movement. In last year’s general elections, at least one candidate contested the polls on the pro-legalisation plank. Though the candidate from the right-wing Rastriya Prajatantra Party fought the poll with a winningly thought-out slogan—‘jaya desh, jaya chares’, or ‘glory to the country, glory to charas’—he lost it. In 2020, a bill seeking legalisation of cultivation and consumption of medical marijuana was registered in Parliament.
The bill said that any farmer with a desire to cultivate marijuana can get a licence from the local government or the respective district administration after specifying the area of cultivation, the people involved, and an assurance against unauthorised use. It proposed the formation of a 14-member marijuana board led by the health secretary to regulate and manage the cultivation and sale of marijuana. The privately-registered bill, however, didn’t make any headway.
Now Sher Bahadur Tamang, lawmaker of the then Nepal Communist Party and former minister for law and justice who had registered the bill in Parliament, is a happy man. “I want to thank the government,” he told the Post. “The issue is now a part of the government’s formal announcement and we need to formulate a separate law for it.”
In the same year, before Tamang filed the bill in the Parliament in February (2020), Nepal Communist Party lawmaker Birodh Khatiwada, also a former health and population minister who represented a constituency in Makawanpur district, had registered a motion of public importance at the Parliament Secretariat for a discussion on legalising marijuana cultivation. Forty-five lawmakers of other ruling parties seconded the proposal.
“If the government can control its misuse, marijuana has many medical and economic benefits,” Tamang said. “It can boost the country’s economy.”
Although there is a longstanding ban on marijuana, the herb has, for ages, been part of Nepali life and has been used as spice, medicine and for making clothes, and is specifically used during the Mahashivaratri festival.
It is scientifically established that cannabis has high-value medicinal use in preparing a wide range of drugs to treat migraine, headache, pain, insomnia and anxiety.
Rajiv Kafle, an activist who has been campaigning to legalise cannabis in Nepal for over a decade, said that he welcomes the fresh government drive.
“In the past three years, there has been a lot of lobbying in Parliament to legalise cannabis and it has finally borne some fruit,” said Kafle, 50.
Likewise, Legalisation of Marijuana in Nepal, an upstart campaign, posted on Twitter, “After a 50-year wait, the government’s upcoming decisions on the cultivation and distribution of medical cannabis are highly anticipated.”
Historical records show that the cultivation and sale of cannabis was legal in Nepal till the early 1970s. Hippies from the West flocked to Nepal in the late 1960s and early 70s as the country was considered a safe haven for cannabis users. They brought with them a demand for commercialising the country’s marijuana and hashish. That new market also invited undue attention. However, both domestic and international researchers allege that it was pressure from the United States that prompted Nepal to criminalise the cultivation, sale and consumption of cannabis.
According to the data from the Nepal Police headquarters, a total of 25,476 kg of illegal marijuana was confiscated from across the country in the past two years.
Although the Nepal Police releases information of people arrested for possession of marijuana almost every day, it does not have a cumulative data on arrests and the people who are serving time in prison for it, said Deputy Inspector General Kuber Kadayat, who is also the central spokesman of the Nepal Police.
Kafle, who primarily campaigns online through his Twitter handle @RajivKaflay and the hashtag #LegalizeNepal, says the criminalisation of cannabis has affected the poor and marginalised people the most. “This should change now,” he said.
Activists point out that with the global legal marijuana market booming, Nepal could also be a part of the phenomenon and reap the benefits. The global marijuana market is expected to be a $73.6 billion industry by 2027, with the medical marijuana segment accounting for more than 70 percent. The unrefined and unprocessed marijuana market was valued at $9.1 billion in 2019, with more than 88 percent of revenue limited to North America.
Still, most countries in the globe prohibit the use of cannabis for recreational purposes. Many, however, have adopted a policy of decriminalisation to make simple possession a non-criminal offence. Amid this, a debate is lighting up as to whether or not cultivation and consumption of cannabis should be legalised in Nepal, as it comes at a time when countries like Canada, South Africa, Thailand, Uruguay and 22 others have legalised the herb. In the US, for instance, 37 states have medical cannabis laws on the books, while 21 states allow adult recreational use.
Amid this, Nepal’s finance minister’s announcement on medicinal marijuana comes as “good news”, said Abhi Subedi, a former professor of English literature known for hanging out with the hippies during the heydays of Nepal’s ganja tourism.
“There should be a concrete plan,” Subedi, who is also a columnist for the Post, said. “It shouldn’t just be a ganja talk.”
Meanwhile, former Deputy Inspector General Hemanta Malla Thakuri cautions that the government should navigate the haze with care, as permitting the cultivation of marijuana without a proper regulation will be problematic.
“If Nepal allows the cultivation of marijuana, more organised criminals will come to Nepal and it will promote corruption,” Malla said. “For instance, you could have noticed how corrupt the police and local administration were when it came to marijuana and opium cultivation in Bara and Parsa.”
He doubts the capacity of government authority or the security apparatus, which has already failed to maintain proper law and order in the society, to control the cultivation of marijuana for medical purposes.
He pointed out how flawed policies have led California, the first state in the US to legalise marijuana which generated the highest revenue from weed cultivation, to face more problems now. “It is now facing big problems because of the thousands of gangsters and criminals created by the open use and trade of marijuana,” he said.
Sound policies are a must if the government is to allow the herb’s cultivation, Malla added. But farmers in Nepal haven’t entirely complied with the ban; cannabis is commercially cultivated in Parsa, Makawanpur, Dadeldhura, Kailali and the Kathmandu Valley. The apparent hide-and-seek game between the police and the farmers is a pervasive phenomenon as police destroy marijuana plants.
This should also be considered in the new law as most farmers live off ganja farming and the black market should also be prevented, Kafle, the activist, said.
“Overall, it’s a win-win for us,” Kafle said. “We are more than ready to help the government out on the study. With sound policies and regulation in place, I think we’d do well together.”