Cannabis: A Brief History
Cannabis, also known as marijuana or ganja, has long been used by humans
throughout history in many different cultures.
Cannabis is believed to be one of humanity’s oldest cultivated plants, dating back
as early as 12,000 years ago. The plant residues have been traced in artifacts that
date back to ancient Egypt. Herodotus wrote how the Scythians, a nomadic tribe
originally from the now southern Siberia, used cannabis vapor in their mortuary
rituals to ward off evil spirits. In Taoism, cannabis has been known to be used
alongside other herbs in ritualistic censers to breathe in the vapors for spiritual and
hallucinogenic purposes. In China, cannabis has been used since Neolithic times.
Vedas — an ancient Sanskrit Hindu scripture has notably mentioned cannabis as
an important plant. Overall, the herb has found its place in a vast variety of cultures
from Chinese, Indian subcontinents to places as far as ancient Greece and Egypt.
Cannabis is first believed to have originated in Central Asia — present-day
Mongolia and Siberia. Its cultivation and usage spread through the neighboring
nations and eventually extended out to Nepal as well. The exemplary climate of
Nepal, particularly in the west, aided in the prosperity of this plant.
Cannabis, Nepal and the culture
Nepal has also had a long history of the cultural and religious significance of cannabis. In Atharva Veda, a Sanskrit scripture with knowledge of everyday life, cannabis is deemed as one of the five sacred plants that relieve anxiety. Cannabis has also been mentioned as a key constituent of Soma — a name given to the personified deity of ritualistic sacrifice, and also the name of a fermented drink consumed by Hindu Gods with beliefs of it conferring immortality.
In Hindu mythology, devas and asuras churned the celestial ocean of milk (also an allusion to the Milky Way galaxy) to obtain the nectar residing below. That process created a lethal poison called ‘halahala’ that could destroy the entire creation with its deadly nature. To avoid this, Lord Shiva then consumed all of it, rendering him the name Neelkantha after his throat turned blue. Later, to counteract its extreme effects he was offered Bhaang (an edible mixture of Cannabis) to calm him down.
With the traditional association of Bhang to Lord Shiva, the Himalayas have long attracted Sadhus – renunciates devoted to Shiva who visit, among many, a lot of shivite shrines including Pashupatinath. It has been public knowledge of these holy men using cannabis, and hence it was traditionally an act of merit for a layman to offer them cannabis grown in their household land. On Shivaratri every year, the 14th day of the Krishna Paksha in the month of Falgun, hundreds and thousands of these holy men gather around the revered temple of Lord Shiva, Pashupatinath. For these Shaivites, smoking cannabis is a way of making an offer to the destroyer, the creator, and the Lord of all Lords — Shiva.
Among the other users in traditional Nepal, there have been male devotees who sing at bhajans. These bhajans took place in the auspicious places at night, around or near temples and sattals. In these bhajans, marijuana is passed around in chilam (Clay pipe) among singers and musicians sitting on the floor. Although not obligatory, the partaking of men in chilam indicates their devotional fellowship to god, and thus to their religion. Although the men were businessmen or farmers during the day, they gathered round to share a devotional fellowship with their fellow devotees; singing Hindi hymns although their language was Newari.
Since ancient times, people in Nepal have used cannabis on the farm to feed animals, for medicinal purposes, for spiritual worshipping, and hemp for textile usage. Cannabis quickly became part of Nepal’s agricultural economy. The higher elevation regions of northwest Nepal demonstrated a unique example of a basic Cannabis agricultural system whereby all three major products – the seeds and resin from the flowers along with fiber from the stems of the same plants are extracted.
The border between northeast Rolpa and eastern Rukum in Nepal’s mid-western region is among the poorest communities of rural Nepal as of today. But their residents insist that they once had a good standard of living. Forty years ago, before the law enforcement and influence of market economics, they said, theirs was the most prosperous area of Nepal’s western Hills. Beginning at least in the 1930s and well through the 1970s, these areas, they assert, were the principal producer of Nepali hashish. The quality was renowned throughout the world. During World War II, Nepali hashish was already commanding premiums in India, its traditional export corridor.
Nepal had always been geographically secluded from the rest of the world. Besides, with decades of political isolation enforced during the autocratic Rana regime until 1951, little was known about Nepal among tourists. Around 1955, Nepal ultimately allowed the provision to climb mountains and opened its border for tourism. Soon after this, the first eight-thousanders had been climbed during the first decade of opening. The quaint nation Nepal, tucked between two powerful nations, then saw its first tourism potential when the first pilgrim backpackers of the so-called Hippie Trail entered Nepal in the 1960s. With the west and its countercultural movements, Nepal became a popular stop on the “hippie trail”. Nepal, a land rich in affordable and high-quality cannabis products, within years became an international destination for pot-seekers—specifically from the US and Europe—and hence, a commercial market capitalized on cannabis blossomed in Nepal.
Until the mid-1970s, there were about 30 governmentally acknowledged hashish shops and restaurants in Kathmandu that paid a tax of Rs.2,000, catering to the hippie clients. Tourists took up residency in various parts of the valley and spent their days in the Freak Street — a name given to Jhochhen, still abiding by this day. Here, popular head shops including Central Hashish Store, the Cabin, and Eden Hashish Centre sold cannabis byproducts.
A paradise to hippies, artists, musicians, authors, they found a bona fide home in a valley embosomed by green hills and refreshing pristine Himalayas. The narrow alley of Jhochhen, epicenter to the hippie culture — south to the Durbar Square, had trails of embellished souvenir shops, tourist agencies, guesthouses, cafes, and restaurants. Not only for the dope, but the hippies were also delighted by Nepalese culture, the architectural masteries, the bustling festivals, picturesque mountains enveloping the valley, and the hospitable Nepalese people.
Kathmandu soon was teeming with an amalgam of different people. The hippies worked to form a lot of their subcultures. They founded and operated ‘The Spirit Catcher Bookstore’ where aspiring artists bought, sold, and traded books in the store. On full moon nights, they hosted a party while jamming to Dylan’s songs, Hendrix’s masterpieces, and other rock musical wonders. Weekly poetry sessions were also organized in the valley.
Cultural exchange was incessant in the valley at that time. Famous musicians including Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, The Beatles, and Janis Joplin had been spotted in Freak Street, yet again reckoning the valley a rich spot for pot seekers. Brazilian author Paulo Coelho’s autobiographical novel Hippie (2018) has comprehensive records of his travel excerpts from Amsterdam to Kathmandu in 1971, with brief look into the cannabis culture of Nepal at that time.
The incremental demands of marijuana in the commercial market led to a hike in its price that was previously significantly lower. In response to this explosion, the Nepali government enforced a law necessitating a license to cultivate the crop. The taxes through marijuana alone were a significant source of revenue for the government (About $100,000) at that time. Unfortunately, this pinnacle timeline of the hippie era did not last for very long after an International Single convention on narcotic drugs in 1961 grouped marijuana in the same category as cocaine, opium, and heroin.
Famous musicians including Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, The Beatles, and Janis Joplin had been spotted in Freak Street, yet again reckoning the valley a rich spot for pot seekers.
On July 16, 1973, all dealers’ licenses were revoked, and buying, selling, or cultivating (but not using) Marijuana was regarded illegal through the Narcotic and Drug (control) Act in Nepal. The factors leading up to these decisions were:
- The Nepali government’s growing concern and belief that the hippies influenced the youth of Nepal to be corrupted by cannabis.
- President Nixon’s global war on drugs
- United Nation’s pressure to join the “respectable” nations in outlawing cannabis.
- Cleaning up the Kathmandu Valley for King Birendra’s coronation in 1975
Cannabis since then has been criminalized resulting in a rampant negative conception of the plant. There had been very scarce attempts or debates on lifting the ban for four long decades since not a lot of people were willing to publicly advocate for it. After the legalization of marijuana globally, and even in several states of the US — a country that enforced global criminalization of cannabis in the 1970s, profound efforts have been made to lift the ban in Nepal with several campaigns and parliamentarians gearing up for its legalization.
Birodh Khatiwada — Nepal Communist Party (NCP) lawmaker representing a constituency in Makwanpur district, with the assistance of 46 other lawmakers, passed a motion of public importance in the parliament favoring the legalization of marijuana on the 27th of January. Sher Bahadur Tamang — a lawmaker in the same party elected from Sindhupalchowk, lodged a private bill proposing to legalize cannabis on the 2nd of March. He believes that decriminalizing the cultivation of Cannabis — a country cash crop will help mitigate poverty in rural areas and that its benefits outweigh any negative concerns.
The bill constitutes several ground rules; such as the government choosing the farming areas, setting up boards in different districts to oversee the cultivation, the farmers needing a license for cultivation, restricting farmers to grow the crop only in their farmland, exportation of cannabis byproduct, prohibition on advertisement of cannabis products, and lastly passing no authorization to citizens under the age of 18 to cultivate the crop. All of this seeks to promote the medicinal usage of marijuana, the nation’s revenue, the lifestyle of farmers, and also to help prevent its exploitation.
If passed by both houses of parliament – House of Representatives and National Assembly, this bill will become a law. However, with the government lacking methodical monitoring mechanisms for its possible exploitation, the lift still seems to be far out in the future.
The bill constitutes several ground rules; such as the government choosing the farming areas, setting up boards in different districts to oversee the cultivation, the farmers needing a license for cultivation, restricting farmers to grow the crop only in their farmland, exportation of cannabis byproduct, prohibition on advertisement of cannabis products, and lastly passing no authorization to citizens under the age of 18 to cultivate the crop.