A number of activists and lawmakers are raising their voices for the legalization of cannabis in Nepal in recent times. But there is a debate as to whether it should or should not be legalized. While those who support legalization highlight the gains others who oppose it say it can have an impact on health. The former sees it as no more menacing than other legalized drugs like alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine. For the contenders, cannabis is a dangerous drug, which not only destroys the health and career of its users but also adds huge adverse effects on families and society.
Meanwhile, the advocates of legalization claim that lifting the ban on cannabis will boost the downtrodden Nepali economy and give jobs to thousands of Nepalis who are left with no choice but to go abroad and toil in the boiling temperature of Arabian states.
The legalization of cannabis refers to establishing a set of rules and regulations which allows and regulates the production, sale, distribution, possession, and consumption of cannabis so that doing so within a predetermined and established limit no longer falls under the category of drug-related crimes.
Once free and then outlawed
Cannabis use was legal in Nepal until five decades ago. Nepal had a liberal stance on the use of cannabis as an Ayurveda medicine, intoxicant, and religious offering to gods and goddesses—especially Lord Shiva. It drifted away from its liberal policy amidst unusual circumstances largely with foreign pressures.
In the 1960s, the Hippie Trail was set in motion to attract young Western adventurers to a cannabis safe haven in the laps of the Great Himalayan range of Nepal. The influx of demand for cannabis and linkage to outside markets revamped hashish production. A significant boost in the economy was shadowed by the smuggling routes set up through India to the wider world of the cannabis market. Meanwhile, it boosted tourism and established Nepal as a safe haven for pot use.
Experts say that Nepal was internationally pressured to draft a law banning cannabis with the Western countries tightening their grips against drug trafficking and traffickers.
With the escalating cases of drug trafficking and consumption, America introduced the Boggs Act which increased the sanction on cannabis possession, and subsequently, the Controlled Substance Act classified cannabis into the Schedule I Drugs which are considered to possess high potential for abuse, without any medical use and very dangerous to use without medical supervision.
When the Western countries faced a traumatic condition with a large proportion of their population plagued by the loops of drug abuse, they imposed pressure on developing countries like Nepal which were traditionally liberal on cannabis.
Then under pressure from the United States and the international community Nepal formulated the Narcotic Drugs (Control) Act (1976) which outlawed cannabis in Nepal. The law placed cannabis alongside opium and coca in the list of ‘narcotic drugs’. Then Nepal canceled the licenses of all the shops, dealers, and farmers. However, illegal production and sale continued despite police destroying the marijuana farm and punishing the cultivators and users now and then.
Then the hippies stopped coming to the ‘freak street’ of Jhonche of New Road.
Cannabis in the US
Even with the hefty sanctions imposed by the different statutes at the federal and state levels in the US, the number of people using cannabis did not decline as expected. Rather it increased, most likely as a consequence of negative marketing.
With cannabis being in the limelight of federal laws, it may have contributed to a continuous increase in its use among young Americans despite the prohibitions imposed by the law.
The Western nations, including the US, who once imposed and pressured Nepal to ban cannabis have already begun to reverse their path toward the legalization of cannabis.
The legalization of cannabis got momentum in 1993 when Surgeon General Elder proposed to study marijuana legalization. After several studies revealing the medical benefits of cannabis, the state of California took the lead and now more than 37 states along with the District of Columbia have permitted the use of cannabis for medical and/or recreational purposes while many others are in the process of following suit. The US Congress has also passed the Marijuana Reform Act unanimously which allows the use of marijuana for research purposes and studying its medical values.
In April this year, the US House of Representatives, with the support of the majority of Democrats and some Republicans, passed the Act which removes marijuana from the Schedule 1 drugs. This schedule of the American Constitution places marijuana on the list of most sensitive drugs alongside cocaine and heroin. But the future of this Act still lies in uncertainty and it is unlikely to be passed by the Senate where Republicans have the majority.
Ban or take advantage?
Western countries, without any scientific backing and mostly by a false myth, pressured countries like Nepal to ban cannabis because they were at war with drugs in their own lands. But now plentiful scientific evidence has emanated that cannabis is far less injurious than alcohol and cigarettes. Moreover, the medical importance of cannabis has also been discovered.
As a developing nation, we have completely different sets of priorities. Banning cannabis was and never had been in the best interest of Nepal.
Many American states, which have legalized the use of cannabis, have gained an unthinkable economic gain as a result. A recent study reveals that the size of the global cannabis market will hit more than $130 billion by 2029. Cannabis has multidimensional purposes ranging from medicinal value to recreational use, and scientific research to its use in the textile industry as a raw material. Nepal can take full advantage of this.
Nepal’s economy is sustained by the toils that are put on the foreign lands by millions of youths. Remittance has solely sustained the weak national economy for a couple of decades now. It is high time that Nepal focuses on those goods and services where it has a competitive advantage over other nations. Cannabis is one of the many goods where Nepal has a competitive advantage because it is more productive on Nepal’s soil. For this Nepal needs to immediately lift the ban so that many of the youths spending troublesome time in the heat of Arab can finally head back home and commercially start cannabis farming business.
Cannabis plants do not necessarily need an irrigation facility. It can grow in any type of topography. So thousands of acres of land which is lying unused in the hilly areas can be used to grow this cash crop.
From the time immemorial, cannabis was cultivated across all altitudes and terrains in Nepal, according to the seminal research by James Fisher in 1975. It was cultivated extensively in the plains of Tarai while the plant grows wild in the forests of the hilly and Himalayan regions. Another finding by research studies by Clarke proposes that northwest Nepal provides an idiosyncratic and commercial method of cannabis production where seeds, resin and fiber are extracted from the same crop.
Once legalized, the government should provide improved seeds of cannabis plants, provide low-interest loans and training for commercial production to achieve twin objectives: To involve youths who indulge in commercial production to gain a hefty profit margin by working in their own motherland and to boost the national economy from its export.
A few days ago I was scrolling down the online news portal when I paused to view the policies of the government. The government is planning to bring a policy that punishes those landowners who leave their land unused. How can the government expect the farmers to use all of their lands when the outcome of their enormous toil does not become adequate even for their yearly subsistence? All the places do not have irrigation facilities. There are no improved seeds. The unavailability of chemical fertilizer has been a serious issue for ages. However, if the government legalizes cannabis, this seemingly impossible policy can be implemented to a large extent. In the first phase of production, the farmers will be able to gain profits from the production despite these prevailing obstacles.
As an agricultural nation, Nepal’s priority should be improving the infrastructures, seeds, and fertilizer facility for the farmers, and wherever those facilities have not reached the crops like cannabis–which does not need many resources and inputs for its production–should be encouraged.
Need for regulation
Cannabis is the most frequently used illicit drug in the US. The number of states legalizing cannabis for medical and recreational use is increasing which has exposed kids and adolescents to the high risk of cannabis use.
Several pieces of research have shown that cannabis is counterproductive to the cognitive development of kids and adolescents below 23. Thus, the government must pay proper heed while bringing the law prohibiting the access and consumption of marijuana who are under the age of 23. Responsible and well-regulated use is imperative in order to protect youths.
Similarly, licensing systems should be introduced in the production, trading, and export of cannabis. The people acquiring the licenses should be given proper training and incentives so that the production and trading meet the legal requirements.
Lastly, the use of cannabis while driving may yet again pose a risk of raising the rates of road accidents. Thus, proper measures should be adopted and traffic police should be equipped with necessary scientific devices to aid them to test the consumption while driving—similar to the successfully implemented drink-driving test—and hefty sanctions for its breach should be brought into action.
Reverse the ban
Cannabis has mixed effects on the health of an individual. But if alcohol, which possesses far greater health risks than cannabis, is being traded and consumed so liberally why not legalize and manage the use and production of marijuana which has high economic value?
It is true that most of the people who use opioids, hallucinogens, depressants, and other highly treacherous drugs have also used cannabis at some point in their life, but it is the same about all the legalized drugs like alcohol, cigarettes, and caffeine. There is no credible evidence to prove the inclining tendency of cannabis users toward other harmful drugs.
Moreover, it should be noted that we as a developing nation have completely different sets of priorities than the ones who are imposing different values on us. Banning cannabis was and never had been in the best interest of Nepal.
For Nepali hashish to be able to reach and compete in the global legal market, largely induced by its medicinal and scientific benefits, Nepal needs to go for legalizing its commercial farming and harvesting, branding, exporting, and conducting scientific research on its production enhancement and finding the wider scope of its use.
It is high time the parliament reverses the decision which was imposed by the international community.
Birendra Madai is a student of BALLB at Nepal Law Campus.