Until the late 1970s, Nepal was a veritable haven for marijuana. Travelers the world round, especially those seeking to escape “Reefer Madness,” could find a ganja-tinted sanctuary on Freak Street in Kathmandu and throughout Nepal. Though you can still find marijuana almost anywhere in Nepal, the mindset has shifted after pressure from the United States and the UN forced Nepal to criminalize the plant. From the once peaceful pastime, cannabis has become an underground trade.
In 1961 and 1971, while Nepal was enjoying uninhibited access to cannabis, the rest of the world was convening at the United Nations’ international drug control conventions. According to the UN, these conventions were aimed at “codify[ing] internationally applicable control measures in order to ensure the availability of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances for medical and scientific purposes, and to prevent their diversion into illicit channels and include general provisions on trafficking and drug use.”
The intention of the UN conventions were not merely to restrict drug use, but to also ensure that any narcotics with medical or scientific benefits would also be available for study. Somehow, the myriad benefits of cannabis were overlooked in these treaties, at least in the eyes of the US, and subsequently by Nepal.
In 1973, in an attempt to extend his ‘War on Drugs,’ President Nixon put the pressure on the hippie haven of the east to ban the drug. With the threat of aid cessation hanging over their head, Nepal agreed and then took it a step further in 1976 with its Narcotic Drugs Control Act. The act stipulated “narcotic drugs as: cannabis, medicinal cannabis, opium, processed opium, plants and leaves of coca, any substance prepared with mixing opium, coca extract which include mixtures or salts, any natural or synthetic narcotic drug or psychotropic substance and their salts and other substance as may be specified by the Nepal Gazette notification. Any person violating this act shall be punished by up to life imprisonment and a fine.”
Although cannabis is currently illegal in Nepal, it grows freely just about everywhere you look. In untended patches of roadside in Kathmandu or Pokhara, it’s not uncommon to see great healthy bushes of marijuana growing innocently among the other greenery. Even on the map of the Annapurna Circuit, where I did a 13-day trek, you’ll see an area marked “Fields of Marijuana” between Chame and Karte at about 1,680 meters in altitude. Though it’s marked in plain writing, many of the villagers along the trail do not acknowledge it.
When asking a tea house proprietor in Manang about the fields, he gave a mysterious, impassive grin and asked “Where did you see this?” He seemed wary to talk about it and asked if it was legal for me to be writing about it. His knowledge of the plant was that he knew it existed in the region but at first denied that any of the locals made use of it.
Soon after the law was passed, Nepalese forces began an eradication program of marijuana fields, both cultivated and wild. However, with the laxness typical of Nepali authority which also makes illegal drug and human trafficking possible through their porous borders, many areas were and are overlooked. Hence the marijuana fields in Annapurna.
With the eradication of legalized marijuana in Nepal, harder drugs started moving in, such as heroin and opium. Nepal now has an epidemic of injection drug users (IDUs). In 2011, the number of IDUs was estimated to be between 30,155 and 33,742. Among that population, 2.2% are living with HIV.
With the ubiquity of hard drug use, a lack of drug education, and a mis-classification of cannabis that places it on the same level as heroin and opium, many of the villagers feel that using marijuana is shameful. Sound familiar? Our teahouse proprietor and his friend, who both wished to remain anonymous due to the stigma, told tales of their experiences with the plant. The proprietor has only smoked marijuana once, with a group of tourists up on the mountain. He smiles as he tells me that to this day he can’t remember how he got back down the mountain or what had happened to his gloves.
His friend has more experience with the wild cannabis fields in the region. He says he and some of the other locals sneak into the fields and haul back whatever they can carry to dry and sell to tourists. Even with the illegal status of marijuana in Nepal, foreigners still come to purchase the naturally occurring plant. He and other locals make some cash on the side from these sales. He even admits to smoking the herb himself.
In Nepal, where many of the citizens are Buddhist, they practice the acknowledgement of cause and effect. The importance is placed on consulting the mind and acknowledging the seeds that are planted, and most importantly the consequences of those seeds. The US planted the seeds of misinformation about cannabis in Nepal and the consequences have been a loss of a major cash crop, stunted medical research, and a replacement of cannabis with hard drugs that have led to a major drug epidemic. It’s time we readjust our thinking, start spreading the truth about the medical benefits of cannabis so we can influence not only our own legislation about cannabis, but the legislation of cannabis on an international level.
About the author: Ariana Crisafulli left her San Francisco tech job and is now following her passion – traveling and writing her way around the world. She covers all manner of stories (including tech!) but her true passion is culture and travel.
Originally published by United Patients Group