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Cannabis in Nepal: An Overview PDF Print E-mail
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Books - Cannabis and Culture
Written by James Fisher   


Cannabis has been grown in Nepal, in both wild and cultivated varieties, for an extremely long time; but its uses, and attitudes toward them, have begun to change in recent years.

Traditionally, Hindu yogis (more often than not pilgrims from India) have used cannabis as an aid to meditation, and male devotees use it as a symbol of fellowship in their frequent bhajans. It is also used for a wide variety of Ayurvedic medicinal purposes, both human and veterinary. Finally, it is used by older people of many castes to while away the time when they' are too old to work in the fields and, until recently only secretly, by younger people in search of fun.

The advent of the hippie era brought increased cultivation, greatly inflated prices, and large-scale smuggling into the provinces of northern India. Over an approximately eight-year period the attitudes of young, middle-class, urban Nepalis changed to the extent that smoking giinj'a (marihuana) or charas (hashish) came to be regarded as a novel, acceptable, and pleasurable mark of sophistication.

All dealers' licenses were revoked on July 16, 1973, and at present it is illegal to buy, sell, or cultivate (but not to use) cannabis. Three factors contributed to this government crackdown: (1) Nepalese alarm that their own youth were being corrupted by cannabis; (2) United Nations pressure to join other "respectable" nations in outlawing cannabis; and (3) U. S. pressure for narcotic control. Despite the loss of tax revenues by the government (approximately $100,000) and profits by farmers and dealers, there has been little critical response to the new restrictions.

I greatfully acknowledge Dr. Khem Bahadur Bista, Mr. J. Gabriel Campbell, and Mr. Michael Stern for their assistance in collecting some of the data reported and for their helpful criticism of an earlier draft of this paper.

Despite Nepal's high public profile in the popular press as a pharmaceutical paradise, no research of the detailed and systematic kind reported elsewhere in this volume has been done there. The notes that follow therefore represent only a brief and necessarily sketchy overview of the variety of cannabis uses, and attitudes toward them, in Nepal. The botanical details of cannabis cultivation and preparation are virtually all identical with those described elsewhere in the Indian sub-continent. These will not be chronicled here, since they are already adequately covered in works such as the Indian Hemp Commission Report (1894) and Chopra and Chopra (1957) as well as in the article by Hasan in the present volume.

Few regions of the world compress so much ecological and cultural diversity into such a small physical space as Nepal. From the southern border — a flat, tropical, alluvial plain called the Terai, barely above sea level — to the permanent snow and ice of Mt. Everest (29,028 ft.) and the other Himalayan giants of the northern border, is a distance of barely 100 miles. The Terai is inhabited by various tribal groups as well as by high and low caste Hindus speaking Hindi and related dialects, and cultural equivalence on both sides of the unnatural border with India is readily apparent. Along the northern border live Tibetan-speaking Buddhists who speak, look, and act very much like their counterparts just over the border in the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China. Between these two extremes, in the great hilly heartland of Nepal, live both Aryan and Mongoloid peoples whose indigenous culture is mixed with influences from the north and from the south.

Despite this diversity, cannabis is found in most parts of the country, and it is only in the extreme north that cannabis is not grown at all. It is widely found, in cultivated and uncultivated varieties, in the middle hills; in the Terai it does not grow wild, but it is extensively cultivated there. It is commonly believed that the higher the altitude, the better the cannabis, and one dealer in Kathmandu claims that the highest quality cannabis is grown at seven or eight thousand feet. However that may be, the price of cannabis products in Kathmandu is the same regardless of the altitude of origin. I have seen cannabis growing above 10,000 feet in northwest Nepal, but the upper limits of its cultivation are not precisely known. Nevertheless, most of the cannabis grown in Nepal comes from the Terai, where agriculture is much more productive generally than in the highlands. According to government revenue records, the bulk of excise taxes on cannabis are collected in the Terai, and the five districts which produce the most cannabis are all in the Terai : Bara, Parsa, Siraha, Dhanusa, and Mahatari.

The near ubiquity of cannabis in Nepal notwithstanding, no one knows how long it has grown there or from whence it came. Geographical evidence suggests it came via India rather than directly from China, which may have been its ultimate origin (Li, this volume), since cannabis is not found along the Tibetan marches but is grown in the areas of north India bordering Nepal. Cannabis may have come to Nepal millennia ago, or perhaps it was carried into Nepal during one or more of the migration waves from India beginning in the 12th century. These migrants passed eastward through the mountains, and cannabis is found more extensively in the west than in the east. In many areas of the western hills cannabis grows all over the vast terraced hillsides as far as the eye can see. According to local humor it is very convenient to travel in west Nepal, where cannabis grows so prolifically there is no need to bother carrying a supply of cigarettes.

The uses of cannabis, and attitudes toward them, vary considerably in different cultural and ecological zones. Although cannabis is found and used in most parts of the country, the percentage of people in any given locality who use it for psychotropic purposes tends to be quite small, although it is in wide use as cattle fodder and fiber, especially in the hills. Users tend to be male rather than female and older rather than younger, but the vagaries of specific local situations make generalizations about caste avoidance or use of cannabis difficult to formulate. There is no association of use of cannabis by Brahmins and of alcohol by Chhetris (a caste reputedly of Rajput origin) along the lines reported by Carstairs (1954) for Rajasthan. In Nepal the highest as well as the lowest castes use cannabis, and Nepal, like the Indian subcontinent generally, illustrates the fact- that cannabis use in traditional societies is not restricted to groups at the lower and disadvantaged range of the hierarchy.

One of the most pervasive traditional uses of cannabis in Nepal is not strictly Nepalese at all but largely Indian. Because of its traditional association with Shiva, the Himalayas attract many pilgrims from India, including sãdhus, or Hindu mendicant holy men, who visit, among many other places, the Shivite shrines and temple of Pashupatinãth. Of course Nepal produces its share of these sãdhus also, but they are all followers of one or the other Indian ascetic traditions. Many of these itinerant holy men use cannabis extensively for a variety of reasons. They use it as an aid to meditation, claiming that it helps them overlook the discomforts of living in conditions alien to them — such as cold weather — so that they can concentrate on higher matters.

Shiva is frequently depicted with a bowl filled with herbs under his arm as one of the emblems of the mendicant, and there is a traditional association between Shiva and cannabis. For Shivites, smoking cannabis is a way of offering it to Shiva. But in interviews with sãdhus at Pashupatinãth, the holiest Hindu shrine in Kathmandu, it became apparent that cannabis use is by no means confined to members of Shivite sects. On the contrary, those sãdhus who used cannabis belonged to a wide spectrum of Hindu sects. It is the combination of the general austerity of asceticism, the unaccustomed climatic rigor, and religious beliefs which produce conditions in which the use of cannabis is almost a professional technique.

One extreme example of ritual use is that of unusually austere sãdhus called aghoris. Under the influence of cannabis, aghoris indulge in such ritual practices as eating excrement, urine, and the flesh of corpses. Professor Bharati (1965) reports that cannabis functions as a deinhibiting agent in certain esoteric Tantric rituals. Hinduism is in many ways a puritanical religion, and cannabis helps to psychologically shore up adherents who partake of these somewhat exotic practices — dietary in the case of the aghoris and sexual in the case of Tantric rituals.

The use of cannabis by sãdhus is culturally constituted since they have renounced the world and whatever proscriptions against its use may exist for their more worldly brethren. It is public knowledge that these ascetics use cannabis, and it is an act of merit for a layman to donate cannabis to a sãdhu. Thus in addition to those areas where it is grown for essentially commercial reasons, countless households have a few plants growing nearby so that they will have something to offer to the occasional itinerant sãdhu who passes by.

A second category of cannabis users consists of male devotees to sing at bhajans, Hindu devotional meetings often associated with bhakti sects. These bhajans are not necessarily associated with Shiva,' since although the Himalayas have literary associations with Shiva, the ordinary Hindu layman worships Shiva as one among many other deities. These bhajans often take place in auspicious locations such as in, around, or near temples and satals (pilgrimage shelters), but they are also held in private houses.

At bhajans, the gãnjã (marihuana) is passed around in a chilam (clay pipe) among the singers and musicians sitting on the floor. To partake of the chilam is not in any sense obligatory, but is clearly a way of symbolically stating the fact of devotional fellowship. As with sãdhus it promotes good bhakti.

In Kathmandu, at least half a dozen more or less public bhajans take place every night and by and large the same people attend repeatedly. These men might be farmers or business men during the day, but they come at night to share the fellowship of the singing of hymns, usually in Hindi, although their own language is either Newari, a Tibeto-Burman language, or Nepali in the case of Brahmins or Chhetris. Participants in bhajans apparently can belong to a number of castes of various rank, although sharing the chilam would preclude the lowest castes. Women sometimes participate in bhajans but rarely if ever smoke the chilam.

As with the sadhus, this devotional use of cannabis is publicly known, but bhajan singers are not in any sense highly regarded because they use cannabis, however exemplary they may be as devotees. On the contrary, there is if anything a tendency to regard any layman ganjari (one who uses gãnjd excessively) as slightly reprehensible, although not seriously objectionable.

The third traditional use is not ritual or social but medicinal. Indigenous medical systems, most conspicuously Ayurvedic, use cannabis extensively to treat a variety of ailments in both humans and animals. It is an ingredient in compounds used to treat diarrhea, cholera, tetanus, rheumatism, and insomnia, among many other maladies. It is also employed as a cough suppressant, digestive aid, stimulus to whet the appetite, soporific, aphrodisiac, and antimalarial agent for hill people who move to the Terai. Cannabis is never prescribed alone but always in a mixture with other herbs or ingredients. A compound used in the treatment of diarrhea and cholera, for example, contains some fifteen different ingredients including dried ginger, black pepper, nut grass, sea salt, black salt, opium, cannabis, and the ashes of a clam shell. In these preparations cannabis is first washed in a cloth with water seven times to remove impurities.

Cannabis even functions as a tranquilizer for children. It is sometimes mixed with sweets and given to children to help them sleep or keep them quiet while, for example, a mother works in the fields. By giving her child a small amount of ganja in forms such as agnikumar or jatikari, she keeps him less active and less likely to get into trouble while she is occupied in other ways. Ayurvedic practitioners believe that too much cannabis, like too much alcohol, can have deleterious effects and that overindulgence can result in madness, weight loss, and decreased semen.

Finally, cannabis is used- by older people of many castes simply to while away the time when they are too old to work in the fields anymore. They use it to ease their aches and pains as they sit around during the day when there is little else that they can do.

The situation among the Tibeto-Burman speaking Magars of Dolpã District in the mountains of northwest Nepal, half way between Mustang and Jumla, is different in several respects from that described above. There cannabis is used neither ritually nor socially nor medicinally. Although it is extensively cultivated, it is never used as an intoxicant. The seeds are extricated from the rest of the plant and then pressed into a dough-like pulp. This moist, doughy substance is kneaded at the top of a slanted washboard-type surface so that the oil is squeezed out and drains to the bottom of the board where it is collected. This substance is used for cooking, and is the main source of cooking oil in this area of Nepal. Without it preparation of food would be impossible. This use contrasts with the intoxicant uses described in so many other parts of the world and with its use as a grain in China.

Although they are well aware of the euphoric qualities of the plant consumed in other forms, these Dolpã Magars never smoke ganjã or charas (hashish),2 and the cooking oil has no hallucinatory effect; they have no compunctions about using alcohol for similar purposes and do so frequently. The low caste blacksmith/carpenters (kami) in the area do smoke gãnjã and charas, and avoidance of this low caste behavior accounts for the Magars' abstinence.

Cannabis is used in some areas on popular and festive occasions by those who do not otherwise indulge themselves. Such occasions include Shiva Ratri, when enormous numbers of pilgrims who give cannabis prasad (gifts) to sãdhus, come to Kathmandu from India. Another occasion is Krishna Astarmi (Krishna's birthday), when school children (particularly boys) smoke ganja or charas or drink bhang. This use is not only public but, in at least one locality near Kathmandu, is actually sponsored by the local school itself.

All these uses have existed in the context of a society which had long since learned to accommodate, regulate and restrict them within traditional and secure limits. This situation was profoundly altered in the mid-1960's when the "hippie" invasion began. With the discovery that marihuana and hashish (not to mention hard drugs) were openly and very inexpensively available, a small resident colony of international world travellers became quickly established in Kathmandu. The price of charas quickly skyrocketed from about $15 per kilogram (retail) to about $70 per kilogram. Smuggling across the border into India increased, and it has been estimated that in recent years more marihuana was exported than consumed in Nepal (Rana 1973).

His Majesty's Government had begun to regulate by law and license the cultivation, sale, and export/import of cannabis (and other intoxicants) with the promulgation of the Intoxicants Act of 1961 and the Intoxicants Rules in 1962. This legislation, with its various amendments over the years, established a system of excise and sales taxes on the sale and commercial cultivation of cannabis, for which licenses were then required. Typically, a farmer would apply to grow cannabis on, say, one bigha (about one and 5/8 acres) of land for a license fee which by 1967 had been raised to $450. He would then exceed the licensed limit and earn large untaxed profits; to combat this tax evasion the tax rate was lowered to $350 per bigha. In addition, the 30 odd shops in Kathmandu who catered to the "hippie" clientele each had to pay a tax of Rs. 2,000.

At the same time, the attitudes of young, middle-class Kathmandu Nepalese began to change. Whereas cannabis use had been largely confined to older people (at bhajans, it is the older men, not the youngsters, who puff on the chilam), it now came to be regarded as a novel, pleasurable, and acceptable way to have fun with one's friends. For a few Nepalese, it became a mark of sophistication to use cannabis openly, unlike previous times when boys would sneak a few puffs in much the same furtive way that their American counterparts used to try corn silk cigarettes behind the barn.

Although Asian models have vaguely influenced Western marihuana use, in the mid-1960's these ideas returned to the Himalayas in a totally mutated form which had nothing to do with the traditional uses outlined above. Although Westerners may admire sãdhus and bhajan singers, they are in fact involved in a totally different system which threatened to overwhelm the orderly regulatory mechanisms which tradition had established.

The beginning of the end of this era came on July 16, 1973, when His Majesty's Government revoked all licenses to cultivate, buy, and sell marihuana. It is now illegal to traffic in cannabis although it is still not illegal to possess or use it. What is owned can be used until the supply is gone. A comprehensive new law expected to be passed by the National Panchayat in 1974 will allow cultivation for the traditional uses mentioned earlier but will ban all other uses of cannabis or any other drug His Majesty's Government considers potentially harmful.

Three factors have contributed to this governmental crackdown. The first is Nepalese middle-class alarm that their own youth were being corrupted, through "hippie" influences, by cannabis. Where they had previously regarded cannabis abuse as a foreign problem, they now began to see some of their own young people turning into "hippies," and this development disturbed them. What in earlier and simpler times could be called "innocent excess" (Atkinson 1882; reprinted 1973) had become a threat.

The second source of pressure was exerted by the United States government as part of its world-wide effort to control the growth and traffic of so-called narcotic drugs. The United States government is more concerned about heroin than marihuana but regarded it as convenient to persuade the Nepal government to ban both.

The third factor is pressure from the United Nations to outlaw cannabis. The International Narcotics Control Board takes an extremely hard view of cannabis and regards it as a grave and insidious danger in the same league with heroin; the 1972 report heaps scorn on Nepal for not cooperating fully with its suggestions. For a small country like Nepal, United Nations' opinion and approval mean a great deal, but it is ironic that Nepal has, largely in response to the pressure of more "advanced" Western nations, abandoned a system — governmental control of production and distribution — toward which many Western nations are now belatedly striving. It is a further irony that the cannabis trade in Kathmandu, which arose in response to Western demand, has now been liquidated largely in response to a different kind of Western demand.

There have been several consequences of this governmental intervention. In the first place, the government now loses revenues of $100,000 from the sale of licenses. In addition, the farmers and middlemen and retail traders lose their profits. Although some of them surreptitiously sell off their previously acquired stocks, few plan to stay in the now illegal business. For them it is just a business in which, as in any business, it is unwise to take excessive risks. In any event, the prices in these clandestine transactions have not changed under the new policy, probably because most sales were made to casual buyers who will not buy if it is not readily available; thus demand has decreased with supply. Dealers d6 not necessarily use cannabis themselves, and as one of them put it, "you don't have to like it to sell it."

The Kathmandu dealers are able to shift their resources into other fields, such as handicrafts. But perhaps those most hurt by the ban are hill farmers in the west for whom cannabis was a small but crucial cash crop.

All these losses notwithstanding, there has been little outcry against the new order, although individuals do complain privately. One sãdhu complained that although he formerly had nearly lived on cannabis, now he is lucky if he gets a puff a day. "This place is as bad as Banaras," he said, where it has been illegal for a long time. Cannabis is certainly not impossible to find now; it simply takes more time and trouble to find a reliable source.

Dealers regard the new rules as unfair. They say that in Western countries many different kinds of high-quality alcoholic drinks are available, but not in Nepal except at exorbitant cost. Thus the new restrictions work against the interests of poor people, who do not have the money to buy alcohol but can afford cannabis.

One sãdhu has the last word in his belief that divine retribution eventually rectifies whatever wrongs governments perpetrate. According to him it is obvious why Singha Durbar, the central government secretariat, burned down shortly after the decision to revoke all licenses was made. Lord Shiva was so infuriated with these restrictions against cannabis, which he regards as his special drug, that he fired up his third eye, focused it on the government secretariat, and obtained his revenge by burning the structure down to the ground.


1882 "The Himalayan districts of the north western provinces of India," vol. X of The Gazetteer N.W.P.; reprinted 1973 under the title, The Himalayan Gazetteer.

1965 The tantric tradition. London: Rider & CO.

1954 Daru and bhang: cultural factors in the choice of intoxicant. Quarterly Journal for Studies on Alcohol 15 : 220-237.

1957 Use of cannabis drugs in India. U.N. Bulletin on Narcotics 9:4-29. January-March.

1969 Marijuana: report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission of 1893-1894. Silver Springs, Maryland: Thomas Jefferson Publishing Company. HIS MAJESTY'S GOVERNMENT OF NEPAL
1961 Intoxicants Act.
1962 Intoxicants Rules. Nepal Law Translation Series 16, Nepal Press Digest (Private) Ltd.

1973 "Consequences of ban on 'ganja' cultivation in Nepal," in The rising Nepal, December 15th, 4.

1972 Report of the International Narcotics Control Board for 1972. New York.

1 Bhim Sen, Ganesh, Machendranath, Vishnu, and Saraswati are only a few of the deities worshipped in Kathmandu bhajans.

2 Elswhere in west Nepal, in the Jumla area, for instance, high and low Hindu castes smoke cannabis in addition to using it for cooking oil.


Our valuable member James Fisher has been with us since Tuesday, 21 February 2012.