Although in small scale, marijuana cultivation in Jomotsangkha continues

Narcotics: In May, police arrested a man from Serthi, Jomotsangkha for trafficking 17 sacks of dried marijuana weighing 40kg each. This was the largest quantity of marijuana seized in the country so far.

In July, last year, a 66-year-old farmer from Jomotsangkha was arrested for possessing six sacks of marijuana in his house.

The arrests and amount of marijuana involved indicate that some may still be cultivating the plant for sale.

The people of Lauri and Serthi once grew and sold marijuana because they considered it a necessity as a result of a lack of economic opportunities.

But this was many decades back when the gewogs lacked road connectivity and were officially a five-day walk from Daifam, now called Jomotsangkha dungkhag.

Villagers of the two gewogs resorted to growing and selling marijuana because this fetched them an income that made it possible for them to send their children to school, construct houses and buy basic necessities, according to elders in Jomotsangkha.

It did not occur to them then that they were engaged in an illegal business.

Villagers started growing marijuana in their fields and a plant once used only to feed pigs, turned into a cash crop. Marijuana is referred to as phakpa nam in Tshangla which means pig feed.

A 78-year-old farmer from Lauri recalled when half of their fields would be filled with marijuana along with maize; cultivated like just another crop back then.

The farmer recalled that people from a border town had come with samples of two local plants: chirata, which is a herb and marijuana. They informed the villagers that the two plants were important medicinal herbs that they could grow and export to earn money.

“We had no idea it was a contraband and back then it wasn’t so strict,” the farmer said. “Maybe this is why a small trade turned into large-scale smuggling.

“And by the time they realised it was illegal, people were already used to the income from marijuana,” the farmer said. “And by then the whole village was involved.”

Yet today, despite basic developments like road and electricity reaching the two remote gewogs, along with business opportunities, the smuggling of marijuana still goes on albeit on a significantly smaller scale.

Marijuana, which was once considered a necessity, has now become a “lucrative business” for some, according to sources.

It was also pointed out that Indian dealers have been increasing the amount they pay villagers. For instance, a seller can get paid up to Nu 1,600-1,700 per kilogramme of dried marijuana today.

The money that many earn from marijuana has reportedly helped some villagers to even repay bank loans.

“In the old days, we remember our parents used to barter marijuana for rations,” a source with knowledge of the situation, said. “But now, it’s not the villagers who are doing it but a few people and it’s solely for the money.”

Marijuana is hidden in local residences and smuggled only after midnight with transporters carrying it on their backs. Their Indian partners come to a bridge in Langchenphu gewog where the marijuana is handed over. Earlier it used to be smuggled to Arunachal Pradesh in India until police intervened.

Despite the police’s repeated efforts to combat the smuggling, the open and porous border is a challenge.

Some have taken to growing marijuana in the forests, according to sources.

When it is time for harvest, children in Lauri and Serthi find temporary jobs harvesting and carrying the marijuana, just like their counterparts do in other dzongkhags, the only difference being the crop.

The children are reportedly paid Nu 30 per kilogramme, which is the same rate other carriers are paid, such as Bolero drivers.

According to sources, contractors also say that its hard to find labour because labourers prefer to carry marijuana for the same rate of Nu 30 per kilogramme.

A civil servant from Serthi, on condition of anonymity, said only a very few villagers consider this an easy way to make money instead of through hard work.

It was pointed out that it is primarily those who believe it is not easy to get a job even after completing school, while some have opted for the illegal trade because they have taken money advances from buyers from across the border to supply the marijuana.

Meanwhile, police records show that a total of around 748kg and five grams of marijuana have been seized in 2016. Police have also arrested six in connection with the illegal trade, this year.

However, police are still searching for the main suspect involved in the largest seizure of marijuana that occurred in May.

Yangchen C Rinzin |  Jomotsangkha