Legal framework | economic gains | traditional knowledge | agriculture | Law

Cannabis in Nepal: In between legal lacuna

How the lack of a supportive legal framework for cannabis is impeding the potential bloom of an economically viable industry

- By Pallavi Maheshwari |

Cannabis plants growing at the village of Kalopani, Nepal. The snow-covered mountain in the background is the summit of Dhaulagiri by Arne Hückelheim (Wikimedia Commons)
Cannabis plants growing at the village of Kalopani, Nepal. The snow-covered mountain in the background is the summit of Dhaulagiri by Arne Hückelheim (Wikimedia Commons)

Nepal was once a paradise for hippies, travellers and seekers from all corners of the world in the 60s and 70s, in part, due to the wide availability of cannabis. Licensed dealers sold hashish in Kathmandu's famous Freak Street and farmers cultivated the plant along hillsides across the country for personal use and consumption, livelihood and industrial use. It was also the same time Nepal started getting recognised on the world map after finally opening its gates to tourists, who were attracted to the cannabis-friendly culture.

As Nepal saw the rise of hippies visiting the country, a different scenario was taking shape in the western world. The same counterculture movement that was bringing foreigners into Nepal was leading to more public and prevalent drug use in the USA. Many Americans felt that drug use had become a serious threat to the country and its moral standing. In 1971, US President Richard Nixon launched the infamous “War on Drugs” – fuelling the fire of American hysteria over drug use. 

Increasing pressure from the US brought repercussions of the ‘War on Drugs’ right to Nepal’s doorsteps leading to Nepal’s blanket ban on all forms of cannabis. Although the objective was to restrain the recreational use of the plant, it also proved detrimental to the industrial potential of other cannabis products. 

Nepal introduced the Narcotics Drugs (Control) Act in 1976, defining Cannabis/Marijuana and Medicinal Cannabis/Marijuana as Narcotic Drugs and declared their cultivation and trade as illegal. The Act further defined any plant of the genus cannabis including hemp and siddha and leaves and flowers thereof as Cannabis/Marijuana and any extract or essence of cannabis/marijuana as medical cannabis/marijuna.

To understand the plant's legality, it is important to examine the details of the plant's chemical composition, and their further classification. The global debate on cannabis legalisation is based on its two major chemical compositions CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).

In simple terms, CBD is the non-psychoactive component that doesn’t get the user high, but gives a feeling of wellness. THC, on the other hand, is the psychoactive component that gives the user a high, euphoric sensation.

THC, the psychotropic component of the plant, is the primary point of contention. Countries differ in the accepted rate of THC composition for the industrial use of cannabis. Common acceptance for the THC limit of the plant to be used as an industrial product is 0.3%. Although there are some countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that have increased the acceptance rate to 1%.

The use of cannabis can be classified into three types depending on its chemical composition: medicinal, industrial, and recreational. Cannabis has been associated with different names over the years. The term “hemp” is used to mean cannabis that contains 0.3 percent or less THC content. The term “marijuana” refers to cannabis that has more than 0.3 percent THC content. Marijuana has a further distinction when used for medical or recreational purposes. Simply put, cannabis is a broader classification of a flowering plant that contains both marijuana plant and hemp plant which both look alike but compound and use are different.

Though caught in between legal lacuna, cannabis has great value and potential. When used medically (termed as medical marijuana), cannabis has proved to be effective in treating various medical ailments. In terms of food and health supplements, hemp oil is rich in omega-3 & 6. Similarly, hemp seeds have a rich nutritional profile and have a range of health benefits. Industrial hemp (hemp produced for industrial use) is used for skin care products, fibre, textiles, building materials (hempcrete), paper, and more. The multipurpose applications and resulting benefits, medical and economic, have led a wave of cannabis revolution across the world.

Canada, Thailand, and Uruguay have already made cannabis legal medicinally, industrially, and recreationally. Others like Spain, the Czech Republic, Australia, Argentina and more have decriminalised it (criminal penalties attributed to cannabis are no longer in effect).

Greece has legalised medical marijuana but recreational remains illegal. The US, the very nation that pressured the world to ban cannabis, has recently undergone a rapid transformation, with 19 states approving cannabis for recreational purposes while 38 states have greenlighted the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. Earlier, the 2018 US Farm Bill legalised hemp cultivation across the country.

As with the rest of the world, the tides are changing in Nepal too, albeit reforms are yet to take effect. Campaigns seeking the legalisation of cannabis have unfolded since early 2010 finally reaching the parliamentary discussion in 2020.

In January 2020, lawmaker Birodh Khatiwada registered a motion of public importance at the parliament seeking the legalisation of marijuana cultivation. MP Khatiwada represents a constituency from Makwanpur district, which is one of the largest commercial producer (illicit) districts of marijuana in Nepal.

In March 2020, a private bill on Marijuana (Ganja) Farming (Management) Act, 2020 (2076) (“Act”) was registered which is still under house discussion. The bill was tabled by the former Minister of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs MP Sher Bahadur Tamang. 

Some takeaways from the draft bill are: 

  • The bill aims to regulate the legal cannabis market by establishing various regulatory authorities at the central and local levels
  • It defines ‘Marijuana’ to cover leaves, flowers, seeds or yield of the plant from the marijuana family known as Bhang or Siddha
  • Licence is required to cultivate, process, and sell
  • No requirement for licence for domestic growing of 6 plants per house or for farming THC 0.2% or less for fibre, cloths or similar industrial products. 
  • Agriculture Knowledge Center or the Executive Director of the Marijuana Regulatory Board (Ganja Niyaman Board) is proposed as the responsible authority for issuing licences
  • The notice for farming areas would be prescribed in the official gazette by the government. Farmers could also lease land for cannabis cultivation. Although some restrictions are imposed on cannabis cultivation
  • Restriction on sale to minors, pregnant women or sale within the distance of one km from any academic institution, child welfare home, child care centre, orphanage home or any such place as prescribed by the Government of Nepal through a gazette notice
  • Restriction on advertisement or promotion except for industrial products
  • Labelling requirements: Packaging of cannabis products must have the licence number, quantity of cannabis, warning label, and production details. Further requirements are to be as per prevailing laws

In December 2020, Nepal and 27 other member countries voted at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs removing cannabis from a list of narcotic drugs from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that it signed in 2003 and ratified in 2011.

Despite these positive developments, the nation still awaits the much anticipated legal reforms. The prolonged impasse is surprising considering how the Cannabis plants that grow wildly and plentifully in Nepal are deeply embedded in Nepal’s history, religion, and culture. The absence of a supporting legal framework is also impeding potential economic gains and necessary research and development works with regards to cannabis while the other countries race ahead.

Most importantly, the plant has not vanished from the market or the culture despite the ban. Apparently, mere worldly pressure and legal restrictions can’t undo what has survived thousands of years in people’s lifestyles and culture.

The enactment of the proposed law, nonetheless, is likely to get further delayed. The incumbent parliament is about to finish its tenure and a new election is forthcoming. Although the private bill is there, it is highly unlikely to become a law unless political parties own them. On the other hand, law enforcers are still unconvinced that regulating cannabis is a good idea because they believe legalisation can lead to increased crime.

But, in the absence of a regulatory framework, it is more likely illicit production and distribution, blackmarket, systematic government corruption and control and illicit trade will find a strong foothold. For instance, each year, police seizes and destroys a large haul of cannabis plants in different parts of Nepal but farmers get back to the production again.

By regulating through legal and policy reforms, it can integrate populations already engaged in illicit Cannabis-related activities into regulated markets. There are entrepreneurs who are already in the business of industrial hemp and excited about global market possibilities but waiting for a legally unambiguous environment for commercial production.

Over the decades, Nepal has missed out on the opportunity to pioneer the global cannabis industry with its traditional knowledge and products and to establish a unique brand since Nepal’s cannabis are considered premium. That can still change. Filling the legal gap is a prerequisite to getting started from the existing prohibition-led status quo.

Pallavi Maheshwari is a lawyer by profession. She is currently a researcher/writer at the_farsight.

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