Buying drugs in Kathmandu was legal in the 1960’s … walk the streets today & you might think it still is
Anyone who has visited the tourist zone of Thamel in Kathmandu after dark can attest to the lone scruffy men who will brush eerily close by your face and loudly whisper the words –
“Smoke? … Hashish … Smoke, you want?”
It’s been that way for decades. Once a free haven for the legal smoking of marijuana, cannabis, opium and other recreational narcotics Nepal’s drug scene is the stuff of hippie hangout legend.
Today things have changed. Drugs are illegal. But the sellers, buyers and traffickers are still here in abundance. Unfortunately so too are hardcore drugs like heroin, cocaine and amphetamines.
For better or worse it’s still very easy to get drugs in Nepal.
For the tourist buying drugs in Nepal is a dangerous path to follow in more ways than one.
Why are drugs easy to get in Kathmandu Nepal?
Nepal is not a major drug producer per se. Yes, in some “remote” villages you might find the odd crop of green leafed medicinal plants growing. And certainly during the Shivaratri festival hashish smoking is legal for the day. Shiva is after all a deity who enjoys the odd smoke now and then.
The real reason that drugs are easily found in Nepal is two fold. Firstly due to the country’s geographical proximity to the Golden Crescent—Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.
Add in frequent flights to Thailand and India along with a large porous land border with north India to making things even attractive.
Then there was that hic-up in the 1970’s with the USA telling Nepal to ban drugs which kicked off a hugely lucrative trade in heroin that some say toppled the monarchy.
That was all before the good old days …
Freak street where the shops once sold hashish
The small street to the south of Kathmandu Durbar square called Freak Street was once a lot more lively than it is today. Once upon a time there were direct buses to Freak Street from the airport and borders filled with hippies looking for their legal smokes!
Yes, government-run hashish shops in the 1960’s were one of the main tourist draws to Nepal. Today Freak Street is a renovated “un-attraction” to hippies and tourists alike.
Only the former hippies of yesteryear revisiting Nepal walk Freak Street now. Occasionally bumping into and avoiding a few of today’s “designer” hippies trying to look as if they are of the same stock.
When US President Richard Nixon made an agreement with the new Nepalese King in 1973 to ban cannabis there was a round-up of traditional hippies on Freak Street.
They were physically deported to India. The hippie tourism of the 60’s was quickly replaced with the more respected business of trekking and cultural tourism.
Then came the royal heroin smuggling. The harder drugs had arrived into Nepal.
From stoned hippies to global heroin trading
Heroin trading became a huge income earner for an elite few in Nepal during the 70’s and 80’s. One of the casualties of brown sugar heroin was the Crown Prince who allegedly ended up being sent to rehab in Switzerland. Meanwhile in 1984 the Nepalese Soccer team were detained at LAX carrying 150 kilos of pure heroin.
During a SAARC conference a US delegation purchased two kilos of pure heroin, dumping it on the Nepalese police chiefs desk before threatening to cut off all aid to Nepal. There was a huge round-up of foreigners, tourists and locals who were arrested on drug charges both real and falsified. Allegations of torture were brought to light and the royal family faced national protests.
In 1990 King Birendra reinstated multi-party democracy in Nepal. Closely followed with military and trade agreements with Pakistan. A rash of democratic ruling parties took over and suddenly Nepal was a heroin hub.
Following the royal massacre a Time magazine article pointed to the history of drug trading by the royal family. The article was blacked out in Kathmandu.
Today Nepal is a poorer country. The hippies have left and on the streets of Kathmandu are loud whispers of a hashish past mixed with much cruder words.
How to avoid drug dealers on the streets of Kathmandu today
It’s true when they say things are never the same when you revisit a country. I remember walking back from a bar in Kathmandu at night in 2007. Repeatedly dirty looking men stuck their faces too close to mine hushing the words “Smoke? … hashish? … you want smoke?”
I never answered them. Once though, like many people, I got aggravated by the nightly in your face pestering. So when one man got a little too close I told him to get lost with the F word. He went from annoying man to verbally abusive and retaliated with a racist verbal barrage and enraged fist.
I learned then that the best way to deal with the hashish dealers is to walk on by saying nothing. Or, at most, put the palm of your hand up just before you see one of them step forward from the shadows.
The same policy is true today.
However as the times have changed so to have the loud whispers and their offerings.
Drugs on the streets of Thamel today
Today those fabled words have changed. Today the words have become harsher. Today I hear the following:
“Smoke? … Hashish? … You want good time?”
“Smoke? … Hashish? … Coke?”
“Smoke? … Hashish? … Something else … Stronger?”
“Smoke? … Hashish? … you want Girl? … Boy?”
Even now merely ignoring some of these sellers can result in insults being sneered at you. Maybe it’s just me as a solo male on his way back to a guesthouse at night that invites this harsher tact as opposed to older couples. One thing is for sure though …
The days of casual free thinking hippie hangout smokes are indeed long gone from the streets.
Strangely even the glue addicted street children of Kathmandu are bipartisan to this harsh new world of hardcore drugs.
One night a Nepalese friend tells me of someone he knows who’s addicted to heroin. I asked how bad the man was? He said the man enjoyed it. A complete lack of education let alone rehab centers have turned what’s known elsewhere as a dirty drug into a bravado drug here.
Arresting tourists for buying drugs in Nepal
The reality on the ground is that it’s very, very easy to buy drugs in Nepal. Hashish still remains the most commonplace drug. It’s simply a matter of going into Thamel and waiting for someone to come up to you.
There are risks though. Once a month I hear of at least one tourist getting caught and arrested for possessing drugs in Kathmandu. Most recently a Dutch girl was arrested in Thamel by undercover police. The result is not pretty either.
Tourists are easy targets for police. It’s easy to spot a strung out tourist versus an everyday trekking / cultural tourist. A $100 on the spot bribe to avoid jail is not so easy these days to find either. The worst is yet to come if anything other than hashish is found.
Heroin, cocaine, indeed anything stronger than hashish is likely to end up with a tourist serving time in Kathmandu prison. Take a visit there and see for yourself. Go with a random name and see the attendant pull out a list of foreign prisoners. You’ll see a mass of US and European names. Along with a growing list of Nigerians.
If they have money they’ll be okay in Kathmandu prison. Otherwise, it’s truly not so nice.
The reality is it’s good for political numbers to arrest some easy pickings. It keeps international donor countries supplying millions of aid dollars a year happy to see assertive progress.
Tourists getting caught buying drugs on the streets of Kathmandu are easy pickings.
Last year a Thai woman married to a European bound for Malaysia was arrested for cocaine smuggling. In Makwanpur over 2.6 tons of hashish was seized in June 2012. Polish man arrested for drug selling in Kathmandu. Drug arrests in Pokhara. The list goes on …
Ironically while Nepal was forced to make marijuana illegal by the USA it’s now making a legal comeback in some USA States. Just don’t forget it’s still illegal in Nepal.
Buying Drugs in Nepal – leave it to the big shots
Nepal is changing. It’s no longer a hippie hangout. Nepal is even trying to rid itself of being a budget travelers destination. Entrance prices are on the increase. Trekking permits go up every other year. Nepal is trying to move up in class. Ironic considering the Nepalese caste culture.
Tourists are being watched as easy pickings that bolster Nepal’s numbers and profile in fighting drug trafficking. Nationally heroin addiction is growing among the local population. Big time drug busts are going down.
My advice is to ignore the men trying to loudly whisper into your ear along Kathmandu’s streets. Wave off the rickshaw driver offering you anything other than an expensive ride home. Instead enjoy Nepal for its culture, food and incredible trekking.
Like all countries Nepal has it’s good and bad sides. Let the big drug dealers run with the risks. Enjoy Nepal for everything else!
This is an additional feature article highlighting the drug selling in Kathmandu Nepal
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