Himachal Pradesh hopes to earn ₹18,000 crore annually by undertaking the controlled cultivation of cannabis to ease its debt burden that has grown to ₹60,500 crore in the Covid-19 pandemic year besides generating job opportunities.

Announcing the decision during the recent budget session of the assembly, chief minister Jai Ram Thakur said, “The cannabis produced in the state is of high quality and there is potential to undertake its controlled cultivation. Under the NDPS Act, 1985, there are provisions for the cultivation, production, maintenance and transportation of cannabis.”

Himachal Pradesh is not the first state to legalise cannabis cultivation for medicinal purposes and industrial use to boost its economy. Neighbouring Uttarakhand did so in 2017 followed by Madhya Pradesh, another BJP-ruled state. After two decades of debate, the hill state will draw up a policy for the cultivation of cannabis, which is otherwise exploited for making narcotics.

Charas worth ₹960 cr smuggled out each year

An estimated 2,400 acres in Himachal Pradesh is under organised illicit cultivation of cannabis. Charas worth ₹960 crore is smuggled out of the state each year and finds its way to western European and Scandinavian countries, while in Israel there is demand for Malana cream. The lower quality illicit charas cultivated in Shimla, Chamba and Sirmour districts has a market in Rajasthan.

Hemp, the plant from which charas is extracted as resin, grows in the wild in all districts of the state barring Lahaul and Spiti. In the remote regions of Kullu district, hybrid hemp is sown clandestinely by foreigners to extract high-quality charas, which is sold at exorbitant prices abroad and at key destinations in India.

Kullu legislator Sunder Singh Thakur, who had been advocating that cannabis cultivation be legalised, says “Cannabis extract is used in manufacturing medicines for the treatment of cancer and Alzheimer’s. It will generate employment opportunities.”

Will generate 50,000 jobs, benefit 2.8 lakh families

The decision to allow controlled cultivation of cannabis comes amid pandemic-induced unemployment and limited resources of income. Covid-19 hit primary sector mining, slowed down manufacturing and transportation and impacted tourism in the tertiary sector. Tourism, which contributes 7% to the state gross domestic product (GDP), is the mainstay of livelihood but it took a massive hit with tourist inflow down 76% last year as compared to a decade ago.

“The state is facing a financial crisis. The controlled cultivation of cannabis will boost the economy as the government aims to earn ₹18,000 crore,” says Pradeep Chauhan, a retired economic adviser to the state government. The initiative will provide employment nearly 50,000 youngsters and directly benefit 2.8 lakh families in the low-income group, he says.

Hemp, from tradition to mafia

Traditionally, hemp was grown in parts of old Himachal, comprising Shimla, Mandi, Kullu, Chamba and Sirmaur. Its fibre was used to make baskets, ropes and slippers and its seeds were used in traditional cooking.

In the 1980s, foreign visitors or hippies taught villagers in Kullu district to extract the intoxicant resin or charas from the hemp plant. Foreign drug mafia operated behind them and soon scores of villages in Kullu started making a livelihood from charas extracted from the hemp or cannabis sativa plant.