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Legalize cannabis to boost tourism in Nepal

In two weeks Nepal will celebrate the festival of Shivaratri, Shiva’s night. It draws half a million worshippers and thousands of sadhus, India’s mendicant pilgrims who wander the Subcontinent from holy site to holy site and live on the offerings of the pious.

Bonfires burn all night, and so do the chillums of the sadhus, who smoke vast amounts of marijuana in emulation of Lord Shiva. Nepal’s government provides food and shelter for the pilgrims, and also, though this is not publicly acknowledged, their weed.

Nepal could boost tourism and revenues easily by extending this tradition to all. Cannabis Indica, ganja, is easily cultivated: its most important modern commercial products are marijuana and hashish. Marijuana’s medical benefits are accepted in the West, and a generation ago no one in Nepal questioned its recreational use. If Shiva and his sadhus can take ganja, why not tourists? Amsterdam’s experiment in decriminalizing soft drugs resulted in less crime and less use of hard drugs, without altering the happy and tolerant nature of the city or the Dutch people.

Nepal’s government should license a reasonable number of private companies to purchase, transport, and wholesale the stuff, and also issue licenses for sale and consumption on-premise to cafes and clubs that meet a minimum standard. Licenses should be granted at public auction, to maximize state revenue and minimize corruption.

The government could set a minimum retail price that undercuts the illegal street peddlers but yields substantial tax revenue, then let the market set the selling price based on the quality of the product. Production should be left to individuals, to spread the economic benefits most widely.

A limited number of distribution channels (perhaps 10) and a modest number of outlets (say 100 nationwide) would allow easy enforcement and regulation and also active competition. On-premise consumption rules would limit the “hippie effect” and encourage orderly behavior.

Tourism would boom. Forget about lowering visa fees! Increase them, and offer a multiple-entry six-month visa for $100 or more. Encourage people to come and stay and spend their money in Nepal over a longer time.

The business opportunities are great. Scores of new businesses, employing thousands of people would be set up. Spillover and service effects from those businesses would benefit others, and an increase in tourism overall would have a very wide effect. A rising tide lifts all boats.

A quick estimate suggests the treasury could earn several hundred million dollars per year from visa fees, license auctions, and taxes on the cannabis. Additional revenues from VAT and income taxes due to overall growth would be substantial.

In rural Nepal, cannabis would become an important cash crop. It’s easy to grow and yields up to one kilogram per square meter per year under intensive cultivation. A producer might get 25 percent of the retail price for a ready-to-market product, before taxes. That would amount to thousands of rupees per KG, even at a low government-mandated minimum price. Since cannabis is so easy to grow, competition would be about quality; and that would raise prices overall.

What’s to lose? With massive unemployment, declining investments and an impoverished countryside, let’s give it a try. Prohibit sales to minors and, if you like, to Nepalis also. Sell it in small quantities, and require consumption in licensed establishments only. Make public use a crime with heavy fines, to encourage consumption only in licensed establishments.

The possibilities are endless. If one “star” hotel has enough business to set up a specialty Gujerati vegetarian restaurant, maybe another would like to have a smoking lounge to attract tourists. With Indian gamblers staying home in droves, perhaps one of the casinos would bid for a ganja franchise to attract Europeans. If you’re a coffee shop or cyber cafe owner, do you realize just how many pastries and cookies really stoned people can eat?

Hash Brownie Everest Flight – need I say more?

New tourism destinations would open up for ganja tours. Three days in Kathmandu, then out to Ilam to go trekking and see the fields of cloned plants. Then three days’ bike tour to the hashish processing plants around Gorkha, and a final visit to the weekly farmers’ market, where the growers and licensed buyers haggle over sacks of buds and bricks of hashish.

The Nepal Tourism Board is aiming to double the number of visitors in 2011. If the government legalizes marijuana, it will be a cinch.

See you at Shivaratri!

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.

By John Child in Kathmandu