Within the digital nomad lifestyle, sometimes it requires you to try something new and go places you thought you’d never go. Well, as I write this, I’m sitting in a small hostel restaurant in the quiet cobbled streets of Bandipur, Nepal. It’s a tiny village on the road to the Himalayas, with a population of around 5000. I plan to stay in this country for over a month.
Why did I come? Well, there are many reasons why people travel: to experience new cultures, to breathe new life into their current one, to try the insanely tasty food and, in my case, to learn more about how Asian countries deal with drugs. Whilst many nations in the continent have made cannabis and other recreational substances illegal, there’s also another culture that exists. One where drugs are used for spiritual and religious purposes, as well as for rural tasks. I plan to learn more as I go, but here is what I know so far about drug laws in Nepal. Namaste.
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Laws vs Culture
In every country there are two realities that exist, oddly, side by side. If you were a lawyer, you might label this dichotomy as: de facto and de jure. De facto means the actual reality that takes place on the streets, regardless of what the law might permit. De jure signifies what a nation allows by law, by the book. You’d assume, with police enforcement, that these two things would be the same. However, as many people will be aware, what is written in the law, does not always take place in reality. In fact, usually, it’s quite the opposite.
During the civil rights movement of the 60s in the US, it took a long time before the legal change promoting African American rights turned into anything genuine on the streets. With racism and inequality still very much existing, despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A change in law does not directly cause a change in people. At Least not instantly. In a different sense, the ‘war on drugs’ has also failed. Nixon’s decision to demonize those using drugs, as well as the substances themselves, has not and never will stop production and use. The UN has recently berated this consensus, and called for an end to it, stating that the war on drugs…
“Undermines health and social wellbeing and wastes public resources while failing to eradicate the demand for illegal drugs and the illegal drug market. Worse, this “war” has engendered narco-economies at the local, national and regional levels in several instances to the detriment of national development. Such policies have far-reaching negative implications for the widest range of human rights”
Laws – for good or for worse – do not always directly influence the real world. In the world of drugs, this almost never happens, unless enforced by a dictatorship. Although, even then, Hitler was supposedly a cocaine abuser. Consider, for a second, the cannabis laws within the UK. Whilst the substance is illegal and classed as a type B drug (the second most extreme), there are still 1.4 million cannabis users within the UK. Two realities exist side by side. De jure vs de facto. Laws vs culture. This is what is also being confirmed to me as I travel through Nepal. Whilst many drugs are still illegal here, it doesn’t stop them being an important part of society.
Nepal is a landlocked country that is situated between the two huge looming nations of China and India. With a population of 30 million, it is slightly bigger than the state of Arkansas or the European country of Portugal. In fact, it is the 25th smallest nation in Asia. Most of Nepal finds itself in the Himalayan mountain ranges, home to, of course, Mount Everest. This beautiful land of mountains, jungles and busy cities is where I will be residing for the next month of my travels. Nepal is believed to have existed back in the ancient times of the 30th Century BC. Whilst India experienced the pointless imperial rule of the UK, Nepal remained unscathed. Record Nepal writes:
“There was little fear of British military intervention in Nepal from the moment the British acquired its newly conquered territories of Kumaon, Garhwal and parts of Sikkim after the Anglo-Gorkha war; the difficulties of a military expedition in the hills of Nepal were clear to the British.”
It is nice, for a change, to visit a country where the United Kingdom hasn’t laid its filthy colonial hands. Nepal is a spiritual nation, with some incredible food and beautiful landscapes. But as I enjoy the fusion of Chinese-Indian food, thukpa and masala, I can’t help but wonder where drugs sit in the culture of this place.
Drug Laws in Nepal
During my first day in Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital, I wandered the tourist streets of Thamel and was probably asked about 50 times whether I wanted to buy hashish or psychedelics. The hash I was expecting, but LSD and magic mushrooms l was not. However, I was also aware that this was a tourist area, and perhaps these dealers were just catering to their Western, drug-loving visitors. Let’s take a look at the drug laws in Nepal, maybe this will help us understand more.
Anyone who is found purchasing, selling or consuming cannabis or hash in Nepal will be subject to a prison sentence and fine. The length and total fee will depend on the amount of this substance in question. For example, up to 50 grams can result in 3 months in prison, with a 3000 NRS fine. This is around 25 dollars. However, if you’re found with 10kg or over, this can result in a 2-10 year prison term, with a 100,000 NRS fine. This is around 800 dollars. It is interesting that, according to Nepalese law, whatever amount of cannabis or hash you are involved in, it will supposedly lead to a prison sentence. This seems slightly harsh and unlikely to me. As written in the Narcotics Drug Control Act of 1976, much is the same with any other recreational substance:
“Anyone who consumes opium, coca or any other narcotic drugs made therefrom shall be punished with imprisonment for a term of up to one year or with a fine of up to Rs 10,000… Anyone who consumes any natural or synthetic narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances and their salt and other substances… shall be punished with imprisonment for a term up to two months and with a fine up to Rs 2,000 or both.”
However, whilst the laws on drugs are strict and have been for some time, there is an inbuilt societal connection to certain substances which cannot be changed. Plus, the mountainous and diverse wildlife that Nepal has, makes it hard to limit the type of natural drugs that grow – such as cannabis or hash.
Drug Culture in Nepal
Hashish, or charas, has grown naturally in Nepal for centuries, some believe it grew in prehistoric times. In fact, it is sometimes considered that the feet of the Himalayas is where cannabis first derived. Could it be that Nepal grew the first ever joint? Nonetheless, the substance does grow there naturally in the wilderness and isn’t stopped by the government. Himalayan Trekkers writes that whilst it is illegal to cultivate, possess or consume cannabis…
“It is said that the wild-grown hashish in the mountains of Nepal is the best among the hashish found in the world… Nepal was known to be heaven for Marijuana lovers in the late 60s and early 70s as marijuana, hashish… were legal before that period. The government of Nepal illegalized the use of Cannabis in 1973 AD because people started migrating to Nepal because of the legal production and trade of Marijuana. “
It is true, before the cannabis ban, Nepal was surely on the hippie trail hotspot list. Plus the substance is also a part of religious and spiritual celebrations. 80% of the Nepalese population follows Hinduism and the pujari and sadhus of this religion have an unofficial exemption from the cannabis ban. It is respected that they use cannabis to help their meditation, which is them imitating Shiva. During Maha Shivaratri – the great night of Shiva – sadhus come together, as well as many others, to smoke hashish in pipes. You can witness this occurrence in temples around Nepal, including Kathmandu.
In Kathmandu the smell of hash was commonly in the air, with holy men holding some questionable pipes. However, as I go further into the mountains and closer to the Himalayas, I expect this type of sight to increase. I’m still waiting to try some myself but I’m certain I will. With the religious connection It seems inevitable that Nepal will one day legalize cannabis, but perhaps also it’s not for the best. The reason they banned it in the first place was to stop drug tourism – I acknowledge the irony of this. Nonetheless, since 2020, there have been many politicians in Nepal who have been advocating a lift of the ban. Perhaps only time will tell.
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