Source: Asia Times
Date: 21 April 2003

Nepal cashes in on cannabis

By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - Three decades after Nepal tried to shake off its "haven for hippies and hashish" label by banning narcotics, this Himalayan kingdom appears poised to hit a new high, with the ongoing Maoist insurgency that is now raging in the country being blamed for the current spurt in production.

While almost all of Nepal's 75 districts have been affected by the insurgency, the Maoists are said to be in full control of at least five western districts - Rukum, Dolpa, Rolpa, Salyan and Pyuthun. These five districts account for most of the illicit cultivation of cannabis, the plant marijuana and hashish is prepared from.

According to the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board Report 2003, "Cannabis grows wild in the high hills of the central, mid-western and far western parts of Nepal, where illicit crop eradication is expensive due to the difficult terrain." Officials find the mountainous areas difficult to access. What is more, they find it difficult to detect illicit crops since "they are interspersed among licit crops", points out the report.

Cannabis cultivated in southern Nepal has also registered an increase. Districts like Parsa, Bara and Mahottari of the southern plains are the largest producers of cannabis. Most of the cannabis grown here is sent across Nepal's porous border with India into the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, from where it proceeds to Delhi and Mumbai and thereon to Europe and the Middle East.

While there is no data regarding the acreage of land that might be under cannabis cultivation, one estimate put out by agents of the National Drug Law Enforcement Unit a couple of years ago claimed that it is cultivated in 18 of Nepal's 75 districts and that it grows wild in an additional 21 districts. The variety that grows wild is said to be used to produce high-grade hashish.

Cannabis isn't the only drug being cultivated in the kingdom. According to the UN report, the "illicit cultivation of opium poppy occurs on a small scale" in Nepal "but it is increasing". The spurt in opium cultivation in Nepal in recent years has been attributed to the Maoist insurgency in the country. The Maoists, who are demanding the dismantling of the monarchy and the establishment of a secular, republican state, are in control of vast areas of rural Nepal.

In comparison with other countries in the neighborhood like Afghanistan, which accounts for two-thirds of the world's total opium cultivation, and Myanmar, which is the world's second largest opium producer, the amount of opium cultivated in Nepal might seem small. But what makes it an area of concern, according to Nepali officials, is the pace at which the cultivation is growing and the enormous difficulties that are being encountered in fighting the problem in the predominantly mountainous country.

If in the 1960s and early 1970s narco-tourists swarmed to this idyllic country in the Himalayas, today it is small-time dope peddlers and big narco-barons who are drawn by the potential Nepal holds for their business. Nepal's impoverished rural people are understandably tempted by the huge profits that drug cultivation brings. Drug barons are said to be encouraging Nepali farmers to grow opium and cannabis on their land. It is said that Indian drug traffickers provide know-how to the farmers, helping them with seeds and information on cultivation of more potent varieties of cannabis.

Insurgent links

Sandwiched between the world's largest opium producing areas, the Golden Triangle and the Golden Crescent, South Asia is a major transit point in the international narcotics trade. South Asia is home to a large number of insurgent and terrorist groups. These groups are important links in the narcotics trade, using the money from drugs to fund their weapon purchases.

Maoist sympathizers insist that the rebels do not use drug money to bankroll their operations. Nepali and Indian sources dismiss such claims. "Recent raids and arrests have indicated that the Maoists are supporting the export of illicit narcotics," says Kumar Poudel, chief of Nepal's Division of Narcotic Control and Disaster Prevention, the country's leading body tackling the narcotics trade. Indian intelligence officials share this view. Drug money, they say, is financing the Maoists' weapon purchases. Expatriate Nepali youth who are sympathizers of the Maoists are said to be engaging in trafficking drugs, with the proceeds being used to buy arms.

Even if the Maoists are not engaging in cannabis or opium cultivation themselves or using the narcotics trade to finance their operations, it cannot be denied that they are condoning this illegal activity. The Maoists have imposed a ban on use of alcohol in areas under their control. This ban is hugely popular among rural women as it is said to have reduced alcoholism and domestic violence. But such attempts at moral policing do not seem to apply to the cultivation of cannabis.

The Maoist leadership has said nothing about cannabis cultivation and production goes on unhindered. There is no way that the Maoists would not be aware of cannabis cultivation that goes on in territory under their complete control. It is believed that the Maoists are reluctant to clamp down on cultivation as the move would antagonize their social base among Nepali cultivators, whose livelihood depends on the illegal crops. According to Nepali officials, the Maoists allow the rural folk to cultivate cannabis and demand protection money from them.

The main thrust of Nepal's effort to tackle the narcotics problem appears to be the interception of consignments. Law enforcement agencies in Nepal and India have intercepted large consignments of cannabis resin - some of the consignments weigh several hundred kilograms - produced in Nepal and en route to India.

The government has not been very effective in tackling cultivation of cannabis. "With the government's writ not running in large swathes of rural Nepal, the authorities are not able to police the areas," one Nepali official said. Besides, the "police and army are too preoccupied with the counter-insurgency operations to fight farmers engaging in illicit cultivation of cannabis or to take action against them".

According to the UN report, Nepal is not adopting stringent laws to fight its narcotics problem. It has not signed on to some international conventions that aim at fighting the problem. Nepal's Foreign Exchange Regulation Act 1982 is said to be inadequate to deal with crimes like money laundering or to investigate the proceeds from drug trading. However, the government has done nothing to amend this flawed piece of legislation.

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