‘High’ holy men downed by Nepal cannabis ban

Mohideen Mifthah

KATHMANDU, March 2, 2011

(AFP) – Police in Nepal on Wednesday cracked down on the sale of cannabis at a major religious festival where the drug is smoked legally by thousands of long-haired holy men to honour a Hindu god, an official said.

Marijuana is illegal in Nepal, but under an ancient legal loophole authorities allow holy men — known as sadhus — to smoke it during a night of often wild celebrations in honour of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.

Thousands of pilgrims travel to the sprawling Pashupatinath temple complex in Kathmandu every year from all over Nepal and India to mark the occasion, which is known as Shivaratri.

At one time the government even used to provide marijuana for the occasion, but authorities said they decided to enforce a ban on holy men selling the drug because of complaints they were dealing to local people.

“The holy men are free to use the drugs for themselves. But they can’t sell it to others,” said Narottam Vaidhya of the Pashupati Area Development Trust, which looks after the temple complex.

“Not all the sadhus are holy men and some come with bad intentions. Our aim is to prevent people from posing as holy men in order to break the law,” he told AFP.

Vaidhya said armed police, some of them in plain clothes, had been deployed to the area to look out for anyone breaking the law ahead of Wednesday’s celebrations.

“As of today, we have arrested seven sadhus for selling drugs,” he added.

Sadhus, who renounce all worldly possessions and usually live in caves or temples, have been coming to Kathmandu for hundreds of years to celebrate the festival.

They mark it by smoking cannabis because Hindu mythology suggests Shiva himself enjoyed the drug.

Shivaratri is a public holiday in India and Nepal, where all government offices and schools are shut for the day.

Huge camps are set up to accommodate the visiting sadhus, many of whom arrive weeks ahead of the celebrations.