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Politics

Nepali lawmakers push marijuana legalization

Ruling Communist Party sees export opportunities in medical demand

A Hindu holy man smokes marijuana at a temple during the Shivaratri festival in Kathmandu, Nepal.   © Reuters

KATHMANDU -- Nepalese lawmakers are pushing to legalize marijuana decades after the Himalayan country, once an international hippie haven due to its cannabis cultivation, outlawed the production and consumption of weed.

Nepal was a hotbed for marijuana lovers during the 1960s and 1970s on perceptions of a favorable growing climate for the plant. But authorities made it illegal in 1973 under pressure from the administration of U.S. President Richard Nixon, the World Health Organization and some Nepalese.

But now, Birodh Khatiwada, a senior member of the ruling Communist Party of Nepal (NCP), and 47 other party lawmakers are stressing the potential economic boost to the country from exports to meet demand for medical applications. They filed a motion in parliament in January calling for legalization. Another NCP lawmaker on Mar. 2 registered a private bill, paving the way for the federal government to legalize marijuana in Nepal.

Khatiwada said in a recent interview with the Nikkei Asian Review that a final decision would be "up to the government," but he saw "positive" signs, adding "the bill primarily focuses on medical marijuana rather than individual use."

The potential size of Nepal's marijuana industry remains unclear. But according to Grand View Research, the global market is expected to reach $73.6 billion by 2027.

The NCP lawmakers argue that because cannabis is legal now in Canada and many parts of the U.S., Nepal should follow suit and profit from its cultivation and sale amid increasing international acceptance and use.

"The World Health Organization has also said that marijuana is not a drug," Khatiwada said. The industry would be a boon for Nepali agriculture, he said, while foreign countries also stood to gain as local businesses "will be set up and sold to pharmaceutical companies."

The legislation calls for decriminalizing the production, sale, and consumption of cannabis by nullifying the 1976 Narcotics Drugs Control Act. That law stipulates three years of jail and a fine of 25,000 Nepali rupees ($210) for anyone found growing marijuana. Similarly, anyone found trafficking in it faces a prison term of between two and 10 years, plus a fine of 1,000 rupees.

The existing law, however, has had little impact on cannabis use and production. According to the Nepalese police Narcotics Control Bureau, 198,492 marijuana plants were destroyed during the 2018-19 fiscal year, up dramatically from 9,644 in the previous fiscal year, though they have no figures for the exact amount of marijuana production.

Cannabis has had cultural and religious significance in Nepal since ancient times. For Hindus especially, the Shivaratri festival honoring the god Shiva is celebrated every year with offerings of the plant. It is widely used during the festivities and security officials refrain from making arrests.

The pending legislation also calls for marijuana growers to acquire a government license. Failure to do so would result in a one-year jail term and a fine of 100,000 rupees.

The bill also envisions setting up designated centers in seven provinces to grant licenses to prospective cannabis growers aged 18 and above for commercial planting.

Households would be allowed to grow up to six cannabis plants at a time with no license. But selling or providing marijuana free of charge to individuals below the age of 21 and to pregnant women would be prohibited.

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