On the 2nd of December, the UN Commission on Narcotics Drugs removed cannabis from among the drugs listed in Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs. Nepal was among the 27 countries who voted in favor to lift the ban.
A surge of connotations on social media showcased Nepali youth with their blatant enthusiasm to pursue marijuana cultivation as a form of occupation on their homeland, since it was no longer classified as a hard drug.
The Convention previously categorized cannabis along with narcotics such as heroin and opioids with provisions to stop its farming and consumption.
Experts believed the decision had opened up several opportunities to commercialize on the farming of cannabis in Nepal once again, reviving a once common but now lost tradition.
A few months ago, the Marijuana Bill itself rose on the occasion to shed light onto the matter of legalization of cannabis in Nepal.
On the 2nd of March, Sher Bahadur Tamang, the lawmaker from ruling party Nepal Communist Party (NCP) had registered a private bill named ‘Marijuana Cultivation (Management) Bill, 2076’.
The bill demanded legalization of cultivation of cannabis for medical purpose as well as for scientific research. The bill also promotes trade of the cultivated marijuana by farmers to countries that allow marijuana export, to patients with prescriptions from Nepal Medical Council and pharmaceuticals for manufacturing medicine.
The news seemed to awaken the ‘sleeping farmer’ in most unemployed youths of the country who were previously looking for opportunities to go abroad.
Despite its promises, the applicability of the legalization to be taken place in Nepal must be studied thoroughly before any hasty decisions.
Transition from Common tradition to Criminalization
Historically, cultivation and consumption cannabis in Nepal seems to have entered from India, as Sanskrit has indicated marijuana as ‘ganja’. It was used for religious, meditation, medication, consumption and recreational purposes.
Accounts of grandfathers and grandmothers reminisce the times when marijuana seeds were used to make herbal oil and its extracts were used to treat digestive and respiratory problems, recommended even to children.
However, when Nepal opened its gates to foreigners back in 1955, the Hippie Trail ran across Kathmandu. Nepal became a pit-stop to hipsters from the US and Europe who consumed affordable high-quality marijuana, including charas. This gave rise to commercial market for marijuana or weed, where price for charas went from $15 to $70.
The phenomenon also brought Intoxicants Act of 1961 and Intoxicants Rule of 1962. These regulatory laws required farmers to get license for farming cannabis and tax on sales. The tax became a steady income (almost Rs 100000 annually) for the government.
The United States was one of the forefront factors for pressurizing Nepal into criminalizing the use and cultivation of marijuana especially after POTUS Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs”.
In reality, there were no such addiction cases as per Western standards but rather just “quasi-medical use” in Nepal. The then King Birendra Shah reluctantly criminalized cultivating, buying and selling marijuana in 1973 although it was still legal to possess and use it.
In 1976, the Narcotic Drug Control Act fully criminalized trade, sale, cultivation and consumption of cannabis. Nepal put forward a lot of hesitation in accepting the full-scale criminalization of the cultivation of cannabis as it was livelihood method of many farmers.
From 1990s, the lack of legal market gave rise to black market for selling and buying of marijuana. From 2013-2018, cannabis was the most seized substance with about 49,000 kg within those years.
In early 2000s, growing research on medicinal purpose of cannabis had led to change mindset of many international countries. About 20 countries legalized its cultivation and use including the states of US.
In 2019, WHO shifted cannabis from Schedule IV to Schedule I. Birodh Khatiwada, a lawmaker from NCP raised the issue for legalization of potential economic gain from commercial plantation of cannabis by farmer two weeks later from WHO’s report.
Finally, lawmaker Tamang introduced the Marijuana Bill formally in 2020 after months of research on the issue.
The focus of the Bill lies on the two categories of Cannabis—hemp and marijuana. The main difference is the level of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) level which is a psychoactive ingredient.
Hemp has less than 3% of THC levels and is used in making textile, paper and also fed to animals. Marijuana on the other hand contains 3-30% of THC levels and is used for medicinal and recreational purposes.
One of the biggest advantages of cannabis lies from the hemp production. Hemp can be used as a raw material to produce garments, paper, biodegradable plastic, bio fuel and even animal food.
It is one of the fastest growing plants hence can be grown in abundance. Every year we cut a large number of trees to make papers. Trees take very long time period to grow but instead if we use hemp, we can use it for making paper within 4 months.
The higher concentration of cannabidiol (CBD) has been used in medicines combatting seizures, anxiety and ADD/ADHD. So, hemp can be a great aid to the industrial sector as well as medicinal sector.
Additionally, marijuana has been linked to several health benefits including relief in chronic pain, bone mending and treatment for glaucoma.
The Marijuana Bill paves way for the Nepalese market on cannabis to flourish by creating a compulsory license mechanism to verify authentic cultivators. The license is for one year and must be renewed yearly.
License is not required for those who grow up to 6 plants of cannabis on their own land for household purposes. A much appreciative step of the bill was to give rural farmers with no land to their name an allocated public land to cultivate. Even the harvesting would be taken care of by the government.
The taxation on cultivation can become a sustainable income for the government which can be invested in further advanced medicinal uses of the cannabis plant.
According to section 17 of the Bill, a separate board has to be formed which can suggest the related ministry for better management and control of cannabis cultivation and trade.
They can suggest means to control illegal trade of marijuana as well as an organized way to form a sustainable market for selling the marijuana cultivated by the farmers.
They are also responsible for spreading awareness about high quality cultivation methods to farmers in addition to conducting research on the use of marijuana.
They are allowed to buy withered cannabis from farmers and selling them to pharmaceuticals and prescribed doctors.
Buying, selling or cultivation of cannabis without license is heavily punishable according to the Bill. The seller must label the product or else they will be punished. Advertisement of cannabis is not permitted.
One of the biggest challenges about legalization of cannabis is its problem with recreational usage. The Marijuana Bill has not explicitly mentioned anything about using it for recreational purposes.
This is dangerous as consumption of marijuana does have both short term as well as long term negative effects. Studies have shown marijuana can cause short term memory problems, paranoia, decline in IQ and even risk of stroke.
Due to the varied level of THC, marijuana can cause addiction problems which leads to financial problems and lower life satisfaction.
It is to be noted that even when marijuana is illegal in Nepal right now, youths will be offered marijuana by sellers in areas like Freak Street and Thamel. The police seem to have an easy-going attitude for such activities unless there is a bigger illegal trading happening.
In such cases, even minors can be using marijuana which might harm their physical and mental growth.
Pakistan was one such nation which had opened marijuana farming in the early 1980s. However, due to their loose control mechanism, Pakistan saw rise in smuggling of marijuana as well as addiction problems. The marijuana farms were then banned in 1982.
Similarly, in Sri Lanka the Ayurveda Act allows cultivation of marijuana for medicinal purposes. However, over the years, Sri Lanka has become a major transit for traffickers and suffers from widespread drug addiction. There have been several reports concerning abuse of marijuana even by children.
Although Sri Lanka has taken a stand against other drugs, it has failed to control the misuse of marijuana cultivation allowed by the Ayurveda Act. These scenarios paint a rather bleak future of the Marijuana Bill although it has big promises.
A Lesson to Learn
The Marijuana Bill can be seen as a progressive step of the lawmakers to benefit from a plant that can be found and grown easily in Nepal. Further research should be done on its usage to reap more benefits from the highly versatile plant.
It is a matter of strong mechanism in order to create a balance between taking economical benefits from cannabis all the while not allowing its misuse.
Especially in a developing country like Nepal with barely any youth human resource, it is the nation’s duty to protect the remaining youths from falling prey to cases of addiction. What may seem like an amazing prospect for Nepal may bear fangs without proper control.
Until the government has assured its position on strong control of cultivation, trade and transportation of cannabis when it is illegal now, it cannot promise a better control when it is legalized in the future. Till then, the bill must waited upon patiently until there is a better scenario for it to be implemented properly.
(Pradhan is currently a second year student pursuing B.A.LL.B at Kathmandu School of Law.)
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