A view from Malana village in India's northern state of Himachal Pradesh. The village is said to produce the world's best hashish. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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At 2,652 meters above mean sea level, Malana could be just another idyllic village in the beautiful Kullu valley in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. But foreign tourists flock here not for the spectacular views or bracing air; they come for Malana Cream, the high-quality hashish, or cannabis resin, for which the village is famous.

Despite concerted efforts by law-enforcement agencies to uproot cannabis cultivation from these mountain valleys, supplemented by local government initiatives to create alternative livelihoods for the farmers who depend on the crop for a living, drug mafias keep the hashish trade thriving.

Budh Ram, 56, a prominent villager, told Asia Times that, historically, the area’s remoteness meant there was little awareness of being engaged in anything illegal. That’s not the case today but, “The question is why should locals sacrifice their only source of livelihood? After all, living a good life is everyone’s dream.”

O P Sharma, a former superintendent with India’s Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), says Malana hashish commands a local price of Rs. 60,000 (US$940) per kilo, and could fetch anything between Rs. 2 million and Rs. 2.5 million per kilo on the international market, making it the world’s most expensive cannabis. “Permanent drug-processing bases in these higher reaches have been established,” says Sharma. “I personally located and destroyed static and mobile labs and bases of foreign drug peddlers in the Waichin, Magic Valley and Tosh areas beyond Manikaran in 2003-04.”

The World’s best hashish

According to the Institute for Narcotics Studies and Analysis (INSA), a Delhi-based think tank, Malana has 351 families involved in making hashish. They produce 400-500 kg of the drug annually. Sharma adds that the villagers sometimes work in collaboration with Nepalese smugglers. During September and October, labor is hired from the state’s impoverished Chamba district and from Nepal to manually extract the cannabis resin to produce internationally famous hash ‘brands’ that include ‘Malana Cream,’ ‘Malana Gold,’ and ‘Malana Biscuits’.

Between 2009 and 2015, Himachal police claim to have destroyed cannabis grown on 10,439 acres across the state. Sharma says that the destruction of traditional growing areas has forced the drug mafia into higher, less accessible reaches of the mountains. In a presentation at a INSA conference in 2016, in Kullu, he said over 1,235 acres of forest land had been turned to cannabis cultivation that year.

Nishchint Singh Negi, the additional superintendent of police for Kullu district, says the fight goes on. “Police try their best to eradicate the hemp business. In 2017, the cannabis crop on over 440 bighas (88 acres) of land was destroyed in Malana and its surrounding areas by police.”

For villagers, this comes at a cost. “Once upon a time, villagers involved in this business used to earn millions per month but the police drive affected them very badly,” says one observer. “Now they want to cooperate with the government by following laws but want to be assured of their livelihood.”

Alternatives to cannabis

Between 2006 and 2010, several initiatives were launched by the government to encourage cannabis growers to switch to alternative cash crops. Kumar remembers them distributing pea seeds and lilium (a medicinal herb) plants. But both failed. “Many questioned the quality of seeds and environmental conditions for growing the crop,” says JC Sharma, managing director of the state’s Horticulture Produce Marketing and Processing Corporation. He believes the perfect substitute for cannabis in Himachal lies in high-yield apple plantations.

Sharma told the INSA’s conference that the best apples grow where the best cannabis grows. The state has established itself as a major apple producer, and with the new technologies available, cannabis farmers could get very competitive returns if they switched. Growing apples, Sharma says, can give farmers returns as high as Rs.2.5 million per hectare compared to a maximum of Rs.1-1.2 million from growing cannabis, and without any of the risks. “New technologically supported, improved varieties of apple have a very short gestation period and their yield is several times that of conventional varieties that have so far been grown in Himachal Pradesh.”

Sharma says he is implementing a project to support 150,000 small farmers in Himachal Pradesh to increase productivity and quality, and gain better market access for selected horticultural commodities. The beneficiaries would be farmers, micro, small and medium enterprises, and farmer-producer organizations who would collectively build a value chain in fruit processing.

A second alternative is to continue to cultivate hemp (cannabis) but for use in producing industrial fiber and oil (from hemp seeds). Cultivation of hemp varieties with a low content of the intoxicant tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is economically and ecologically sound.

“New improved varieties of apple have a very short gestation period and their yield is several times that of conventional varieties that have so far been grown in Himachal Pradesh”

Hemp requires less water to grow than cotton. It’s drought resistant and so, unlike cotton, grows well with little irrigation. Hemp also has a higher fiber yield than any other agricultural crop, including cotton, thus requiring less land for the same output. What’s more, hemp fiber is four times as strong as cotton, has wide industrial applications and a growing international market. China is the world’s biggest exporter of hemp textiles.

The challenge, however, lies not only in finding economic alternatives to wean farmers away from growing illegal crops but making the cost of supplying the narcotics trade prohibitively expensive. Experience in other narcotics-producing regions of the world shows this is not easy.

Despite using massive military force and spending an estimated US$12 billion on opium eradication (including crop-substitution measures) over the past 16 years, the United States appears to have singularly failed to curb the production of opium and heroin in Afghanistan.

In fact, in 2017, the area under poppy cultivation in Afghanistan increased by 63% over the previous year to 328,000 hectares, while opium production reached a record 9,000 metric tons. More alarmingly, according to the UN, the country’s drug trade employs 2.9 million people, or 12% of its population.

Clearly, the key to the success of any such program isn’t just alternative crops, but alternative livelihoods. Says 51-year-old Beli Ram, Malana’s first matriculated college student and now an assistant watershed-development coordinator at Kullu, “Today there is a different scenario as villagers have started to educate their children.” With skills will come opportunities beyond farming in the high ranges of Himachal Pradesh, he hopes.

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