OPINION: Should Nepal still continue to ban cannabis?

KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) - The country needs to understand the history of its trade and consumption, and how the larger public feels about the issue. 

Considering the benefits of cannabis in pain management and the reported cure of several neural diseases such as seizure and dementia, it could become a drug of choice in the future worth billions of dollars. The number of global cannabis patent applications has doubled since 2008, and according to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, approximately 10,246 cannabis-related applications have been filed since 1978. The soaring number of patents has generated wealth with legal cannabis sales believed to have hit $10 billion in the US in 2018, and is predicted to reach nearly $23 billion by 2025.

The patents usually applied for include utility, design and plant types and compositions. Perhaps the most controversial in regard to cannabis are patents issued for new, distinct variations of plants invented or discovered through cultivation, mutation, hybridisation or any other artificial process.

Cannabis is a highly misunderstood plant. The UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs states that the cannabis sativa plant with a tetrahydrocannabinol content of less than 3 percent is not considered to be marijuana, and that the plant can also be a source of fibre, paper, cosmetics, confectioneries, building materials, oil and furniture. The World Health Organisation has recommended reclassifying cannabis by removing it from Schedule IV of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs International Treaty of 1961 and placing it under a less restrictive level of control in Schedule I.

Over the past 11 years, support for recreational cannabis has doubled in Europe. According to a poll conducted by the independent think tank Volteface, 63 percent of Londoners endorsed the legalisation of cannabis. In the UK, the cannabis market is worth an estimated 2.5 billion pounds. Attitudes towards the use of cannabis are shifting. Today, 33 US states allow medical use of cannabis, while 10 states have legalised the recreational use of cannabis.

Although the sale of cannabis remains illegal, possession in small amounts is no longer a crime in many countries around the world. New Zealand and Canada recently announced their government's priority to legalise marijuana with some restrictions. Several countries including Uruguay, the Netherlands, Spain, South Africa, Colombia, Australia, Austria, Germany and Israel have given permission to use it as a medicine. Countries worldwide are now moving towards some form of legalisation.

Nepal is a country known for marijuana use for ages, but the government banned its use under pressure from the Nixon-led policy of war on drugs in the US. On July 16, 1973, Nepal issued an ordinance revoking all licences to cultivate and sell marijuana supplemented by the Narcotics Drug Control Act which criminalised the sale, cultivation and consumption of cannabis. India also signed the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and banned cannabis in 1985. Should Nepal still continue to ban cannabis when the US that had forced it to do so has legalised its use?

Singha Durbar Vaidyakhana, the oldest ayurvedic medicine manufacturing company in Nepal, holds the view that legalisation could lead to new avenues for profit. Nepal needs to understand the competitiveness of the market, but it has the potential to create large employment opportunities due to the unique advantage of its genetic species and climatic conditions. If Nepal regulates this industry and is able to produce quality cannabis under strict regulation and supply it to the world market, it could generate millions of dollars worth of sales revenue. This money can be used to support our medicinal plant industry.

Nepal needs to understand the history of its trade and consumption, and how the larger public feels about the issue. It can hold a national seminar on legalisation and research infrastructure investment to be a competitive global player in the production, harvest and export of processed materials. The ongoing debate in Nepal on cannabis is timely. Given the rapid movement in cannabis regulation across the world, it is important that public debates are held and the reports made available to UN agencies, according to Dr Dan Werb, director of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy. A session of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs is to be held in Vienna in December, and it will be interesting to see its outcome.

Nepal needs to join this debate seriously and hold a marijuana congress to discuss legalisation possibilities and prospects, potential opportunities, and research and development investment to support this industry. One of the greatest natural resources of our country is high-value Himalayan medicinal plants, and it is time we took this industry seriously and invested in it to reap future benefits. 

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