The significance of Nepal’s “re-legalization”

What do John Lennon, Bob Seger, and Janis Joplin have in common?

Listen to enough late ‘60s and early ‘70s classic rock and you’ll hear a few references to Kathmandu. At the time, the capital of Nepal was a choice spot among hippies and counterculture enthusiasts, who flocked to Freak Street for its legal hashish markets, tea houses, and vast quantities of cheap bud.

But in 1973, when pressure from the U.S. government and its ongoing War on Drugs forced the hand of the Nepal government, licensed shops were shut down and their owners deported to India. Visitors who had expected to vacation and consume without fear of the law scrambled to leave in fear of being fined or arrested by local police.

A special to the New York Times published on August 13, 1973 describes the feeling in the capital at the time:

Downtown, along New Road and Jhochhen Lane [Freak Street], the hippies watch the rain and smoke hashish and laugh nervously, inexplicably.

“Is it over, is Katmandu over?” asks Jason, a 26‐year‐old Canadian, sitting barefoot in the courtyard of the Eclipse, a dingy hangout. “Is it hassle time in Katmandu?” [sic]

Durbar Sqaure in Kathmandu (Amanda Siebert photo)

The country’s foreign minister, Gyanendra Bahadur Karki, had this to say to Times reporter Bernard Weinraub about the epidemic of drug-riddled visitors that he feared were having a negative influence on young Nepalese:

“We are trying to discourage them but we have problems… They shave their hair, they dress well and they get a visa. As soon as they come here they start growing long hair.”

Western influence is a powerful thing: In the 1970s, it caused the Nepal government to ban its lucrative cannabis and hashish industry and make cultivation and consumption of the plant illegal.

Last week, it led to a proposition to legalize.

According to the Associated Press, nearly 50 members of the governing Communist Party of Nepal have backed a motion to legalize the use and cultivation of cannabis. Birodh Khatiwada of the Makawanpur district, an area that produces a high volume of illicit cannabis, proposed the motion while speaking of legalization in countries like Canada and Germany.

Hotel Eden's hashish menu, pre-1973

“Marijuana has multiple uses. It also helps earn foreign currencies and produce medicines,” he said. The motion has yet to be debated in Parliament.

Re-legalizing cannabis in Nepal would potentially reopen a much-needed revenue stream for farmers, while reconnecting the country with an endemic plant that has been used there for medicinal, spiritual, and recreational purposes for hundreds (if not thousands) of years. It could also have a considerable effect on crime rates: although cannabis seizures fell dramatically in Nepal between 2013 and 2018, drug-related arrests over the same period rose by 83 percent.

Home to several world-renowned landraces, lawmakers can’t ignore that the outdoor growing conditions and terrain of the Himalayan country have earned its cannabis and hashish products (temple balls, anyone?) a worldwide reputation.

I, for one, find this development particularly exciting.

This is a country that was licensing what we might call “retail cannabis shops” in the 1960s, and has an inherent link to the plant that is only shared with few other areas of the world. Nepal might be interested in legalizing because of Western influence, but I hope that they don’t follow in our sterile, corporate footsteps.

Then again, with such a rich history, I can’t imagine the same approach would make sense. Critics in Nepal, like Raj Thapa, a retired inspector of the Nepal police who worked in the force’s drug enforcement unit, have already expressed concerns regarding the need for “protective apparatus” that would prevent large-scale foreign firms from taking over, as they have begun to in other parts of the world.

The Kathmandu Valley (Amanda Siebert photo)

He noted to Kathmandu Post reporter Leena Dahal in June 2019 that the country’s initial ban on cannabis was solely enacted because of the United States, and never took into account the plant’s place among the people of Nepal.

“It seemed to come out of nowhere… Suddenly, a plant that grew abundantly across the country, that was used to treat stomach aches even among young children was placed under the same category as heroin and cocaine,” he said.

The consideration of legal cannabis in Nepal should take that history into account.

“At the end of the day, our approach to legislation—when or if we decide to take that step at all—has to be led by Nepal and Nepali concerns,” he continued.

“It doesn’t matter who has legalized already or what the international market is doing. What matters most is that we see both sides of the coin.”