SHIMLA: A visibly jittery BJP government in Himachal Pradesh has gone back on its statement on legalising cannabis cultivation, a major election issue in the hill state.
Within hours of issuing an official statement on Tuesday that, like Uttarakhand, a proposal on cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purposes can be examined by Himachal Pradesh, the government took a step back by withdrawing it.
The subsequent note did not find any mention of cannabis cultivation.
The statement quoting Chief Secretary B.K. Agarwal said "the Israel Embassy is already pursuing a proposal with the government of Uttarakhand on development of cannabis for medicinal and hemp purposes".
"A similar proposal can be examined by Himachal Pradesh for controlled cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purposes and cultivation of low psychotropic content cannabis for hemp production," it said.
The note mentioned that a meeting of senior government functionaries led by Agarwal was held with the Ambassador of Israel Ron Malka in New Delhi to discuss issues related to state's Global Investors Meet to be held in Dharamsala in September.
A section of growers, mainly in Shimla and Mandi parliamentary constituencies, for long have been asking the main political parties -- the Congress and the BJP -- that cannabis and poppy cultivation need to be legalised and promoted to supplement their income.
They say their main apple crop is declining owing to various reasons, including variable climatic conditions.
"Since most of the apple plantation needs rejuvenation and this is a costly proposition, selective poppy cultivation is the best option for the growers to compensate their losses," Karan Khimta, an apple grower in Shimla's prominent apple belt of Jubbal, , told IANS.
Joining the issue, another grower Suresh Thakur said allowing poppy growing would also help check its illegal cultivation in the region.
The apple growers blame the outgoing BJP MP Virender Kashyap for his failure to deliver on one of his major poll promises of legalising poppy cultivation.
Experts say there is a huge demand for opium, an extract of the poppy, in the pharmaceutical industry. Also, the climatic condition in the state is congenial for its cultivation.
They argue that states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have allowed selective cultivation of poppy which greatly helped to strengthen the rural economy.
Two-time MP Kashyap, who was denied re-nomination by the party in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, said he had raised the issue of legalising the poppy cultivation in Parliament several times.
"Due to some legal issues, it couldn't find favour," he added.
During his campaign in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Kashyap had said poppy cultivation was not banned before Independence and its cultivation was a common practice in the state.
Even three-time BJP MP Maheshwar Singh in November last wrote a letter to Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, asking to legalise cannabis and poppy cultivation as they would not only generate employment but would also stop the illegal trade in its contraband by- products.
Experts say the selective cultivation of cannabis and poppy could annually generate a revenue of Rs 800 crore-Rs 900 crore.
Former superintendent of the Narcotics Control Bureau, O.P. Sharma, who was leading the state's first drive to eradicate mass-scale cannabis cultivation in 2003, told IANS that "alternative farming is the only way of controlling poppy and cannabis cultivation."
"Even if the government goes for the selective farming of cannabis, it will have to set up a separate enforcement directorate to check its pilferage and also an exclusive directorate to regulate its cultivation and production," Sharma said.
According to the police, cannabis and poppy are grown illegally in vast tracts of Kullu, Mandi, Shimla and Chamba districts, causing a serious problem of drug cultivation, trafficking and addiction.
The lure of drugs and quick bucks attract foreigners too to the higher reaches and largely unexplored areas of the state, where they have become part of the opium and cannabis growing and smuggling industry.
The volume of this murky trade can be gauged from a government reply in the Assembly recently that 455.792 kg charas, 7.416 kg opium, 21.253 kg ganja and 0.315 gm smack have seized in the state in the past one year.
In the last one year 1,724 people, including 10 foreigners, were arrested on charges of drug peddling and 1,342 cases were registered under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act.
Himachal Pradesh will go to the polls for its four parliamentary seats - Shimla, Kangra, Hamirpur and Mandi - on May 19.