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High times in the Himalayas

The people of Malana are poor, illiterate and grow some of the world's best pot. That may be about to change.

“The cops come and raid with 100, 200, 300 men with swords, cutting down charas wherever they see it, but it's only once in a blue moon, and they never find the good plants,” said a drug user named Sumit (who asked that his real name not be used for fear of arrest).

Despite the fact that the hashish they cultivate ultimately becomes some of the most prized in the world, people in Malana live in squalor. Raw sewage flows across paths in the middle of town. Health and education facilities are poor. Many villagers suffer from eye and skin infections. Drug use begins at a very young age.

One reason for the village's lack of infrastructure is that the villagers receive only a tiny portion of the returns from their crops. Buy a tola, or 10 grams, of the best hashish in Malana, and you'll pay $30. But once that same hashish makes its way to Delhi, the price increases threefold, while the rate in Goa is 10 times the original sale price.

“In Amsterdam, it's like a vintage car,” Sumit said. “Dealers can name their price.”

In this system, the transporters and dealers, not the cultivators, make most of the money. Sharma hopes his plan will show the Malana villagers it is possible to make a decent living growing something other than cannabis. For the first step of the plan, Sharma secured a $3,900 grant from Sai Engineering Foundation Shimla to purchase almost 6,000 pounds of sweet peas and beans, which he gave to 225 of Malana's villagers to be planted.

Sharma figures a husband and wife farming team in Malana can make about $935 per year growing beans and sweet peas, versus what he estimates as a $1,000-per-year return on cannabis cultivation. He hopes the fact that his alternative crops are legal will persuade villagers to turn to them.

It won't be easy. Mirza is betting 60:40 odds — against Sharma.

“It's a herculean task,” she said. “You see, cannabis is such an intrinsic part of their culture. It's just growing out there; you can't control it. I saw fields — entire mountains covered with it — 3,000 acres of land under cultivation. Why would an average farmer go for an alternative crop?”

Only this summer's harvest will reveal the project's success.

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Analysis: the awesome power of the illegal high