Why Nepal must legalise cannabis

Nearly 50 years after the United States government forced Nepal to ban the cultivation and use of cannabis, MP Sher Bahadur Tamang is on a crusade to have it legalised. The ban led to the impoverishment of Nepal’s poorest communities by eliminating this important cash crop. Driving it underground led to the formation of a police-politician nexus, and may have contributed to the rise of the Maoist insurgency decades later. 

In this interview on the Saglo Samaj tv magazine program, Tamang tells host Kanak Mani Dixit how his Cannabis Cultivation (Management) Act could benefit Nepalis.

Kanak Mani Dixit: What led you to register the bill to allow the legalisation of marijuana?

Sher Bahadur Tamang: Throughout this campaign, we worked with many researchers and experts realised the great medicinal and economic value of cannabis. After feedback from the research team, we tabled this bill in Parliament. We believe this is one of the ways to alleviate rural poverty. It also comes at a time when there is a push internationally to legalise not just medicinal marijuana, and the use of the plant for many purposes, including recreational cannabis. 

Why did you have to register a private bill in Parliament?

We met with political leaders and parliamentarians, as well as members of the general public, after we introduced the bill. The 1976 law banned cannabis, criminalising its use. A significant number of the general public view recreational use of cannabis as being wrong and the users are condemned as गंजेडी drug addicts. We sought to counter that belief and create a conversation around the many benefits of cannabis. At a time when marijuana use is gradually becoming more and more open and legal globally, the discourse is also gaining momentum quickly here at home.

Cannabis has been an integral part of Nepal’s social and cultural life, but it has carried a very negative connotation after the ban. Why?

We worship Lord Shiva, a wise deity who recognised the great medicinal value of cannabis. Over the last 45 years, we were duped into believing that cannabis was harmful.

How would this bill lift Nepalis from poverty?

There is a competitive international market for cannabis. The country that forced us to ban the crop is now legalising or decriminalising it. Marijuana has been legalised for recreational use in countries like Canada and Uruguay, and for medical use in Thailand. But all of these countries need to cultivate the plants in controlled environments in massive greenhouses, which means the production costs are high. Nepal, however, has the right climate and soil conditions for marijuana cultivation, which means our produce will be organic. Moreover, Purple Haze, a more potent type of marijuana which grows in the Himalayan region of Nepal, is extremely valuable and could be an important cash crop. 

I believe that the United Nations will make marijuana legal and even encourage the world to plant it widely within our lifetime. The wide-ranging benefits are too important to ignore.

Homesteads growing cannabis look relatively more prosperous than those belonging to subsistence farmers in Makwanpur.

There is a widely held belief that cannabis is a gateway drug to harder substances like cocaine and crystal meth. 

This campaign is entirely driven by science. That cannabis is a gateway drug to harder substances is a false assumption. On the contrary, it is an ‘exit’ drug, as controlled and prescribed marijuana use has proven to help people move away from substance abuse, including cigarette and alcohol addiction.

Given Nepal’s poor governance record, do you think that cannabis cultivation and trade can actually be regulated transparently?

Those who do not believe that regulation and transparency are possible, have no business being in positions of leadership. If one cannot work to overcome poverty and provide opportunities to citizens, why hold any office at all?

Nepal Police raids cannabis farms accompanied by reporters.
Farmers look on as police destroy, ready to be harvested cannabis crops in Makwanpur last week.

What is your answer to people who think the ban should stay and legalisation will lead to ‘mafiaisation’?

If a national governing board monitors cannabis cultivation and collection for medical purposes, we will be able to take the product to the international market, create opportunities for foreign investment, and also generate employment nationally for farming and processing. Of course, the government will require that cannabis farmers and suppliers be licensed.

There is the possibility of ‘mafiasation’, as you say, if we are only talking about recreational cannabis. However, the amount of money that can be earned from the medicinal product will far exceed the amount that would be earned from recreational sales. Moreover, cannabis will be the foundation through which Nepal can make the jump to other products in the future.

What do the people of Rukum, Rolpa and Makwanpur, and also your own constituency in Sindhupalchok, say about your draft bill? 

The bill does not allow farmers to convert their entire land for cannabis cultivation, just a portion of it. If, for instance, farmers use a certain part of their land to cultivate marijuana, they will not sit idly by watching the plants grow while the rest of their land remains untilled. They might grow other food grains or vegetables on the rest of their property. And what they will not eat, they will sell, bringing in income. They will not need to leave home and head for the Gulf for employment. 

From what you say cannabis is not a gateway drug, but a gateway plant that will have a positive impact right across the national economy?

Exactly. Everybody will benefit from it. But amending the current law is not enough. There needs to be a regulatory board to decide how much control local governments have over cultivation, how much land farmers will be allocated, and how much they will be allowed to cultivate. Local governments could also gain a certain percentage of the revenue earned from production. That is why a new law is necessary.

Do you expect renewed obstruction to the bill from the international community like there was in the past?

I do not think there will be any such pushback. The cost of production of cannabis in other countries is much higher than it would be in Nepal. When I began this campaign, many friends, international experts, and scholars got in touch with me to say that Nepal needs only to create a pathway for cannabis cultivation, all other resources required for processing will be readily available. There is also a significant market for raw materials. 

Lord Shiva himself may be giving his blessings for the bill to be passed. 

(Laughs) Yes, our sages whom we worship as gods knew the benefits of cannabis. And today, Nepalis who live in poverty or toil in the desert heat of the Gulf, are our new gods. This bill can give them financial security so they do not have to migrate. Those are the people who will benefit directly from this bill. 

This interview is based on the third episode of  Saglo Samaj, a tv magazine program produced by Himalmedia which is broadcast every Monday, at 8:30 pm on Dish Home Channel 130. Go online to watch a trailer of the program.