Cannabis in Tibet – Laws, Use, and History

The Tibetan flag and a sunset behind a building and cannabis plants

In the past, the Tibetan people used cannabis for a variety of purposes, including as an ingredient in their famous butter tea. However, the country is now governed by Chinese law, which not only means that cannabis use is illegal – it also means that harsh sentences are in place for offenders who sell or buy it. This includes the death penalty.

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Cannabis laws in Tibet

Can you possess and use cannabis in Tibet?

Tibet is under the control of the People’s Republic of China, and as such, adheres to its laws. In China, even limited personal use is forbidden, and can result in a prison sentence for the offender. The same applies for the people of Tibet. 

In China’s Narcotics Control document, drugs are referred to as a ‘scourge’ and a ‘public hazard’.

Can you sell cannabis in Tibet?

It’s illegal to sell or supply cannabis in Tibet. The Chinese Criminal Law states that anyone who “smuggles, traffics in, transports or manufactures narcotic drugs… shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of 15 years, life imprisonment or death, and also to confiscation of property.”

Under Chinese law, offenders can be given the death penalty, and according to certain reports, this is carried out regularly in China – so the same may be true in Tibet. Exact figures relating to executions are unknown.

Although some public figures have praised China’s ‘zero tolerance’ approach to drug trafficking (such as US President Donald Trump), others have pointed out that it hasn’t been successful. The Brookings report comments: “despite the relentless and draconian counter measures, China’s drug problem does not seem to have subsided much.”

Tibet is one of the most heavily scrutinised and policed locations on earth. In 2011, a security policy was implemented, introducing hundreds of police stations across the country. This enabled intensive monitoring of urban areas.

As such, it’s unlikely that many people would risk openly selling cannabis in the country. There are occasional reports (dating back to the 1960s and 1970s) of Westerners consuming Tibetan ‘temple-balls’. However, since the establishment of the Tibetan Autonomous Region in 1951, travel in and out of the country has been limited, so very few reports exist.

Can you grow cannabis in Tibet?

It’s against the law to cultivate cannabis in Tibet. The Chinese Criminal Law states that whoever grows it illegally shall be ‘forced to uproot’ the plants, and be given a five-year prison sentence, criminal detention or public surveillance. They may also be fined.

Is CBD legal in Tibet?

In accordance with Chinese law, CBD is legal to use in Tibet, providing it has low enough levels of THC (the psychoactive substance responsible for the ‘high’). However, due to the inaccessibility of the country, it’s difficult to say whether CBD products are available there or not.  

Medicinal cannabis in Tibet

Evidence suggests that cannabis was used medicinally in the past in Tibet. Ancient Tibetan medicine borrowed heavily from Indian Ayurvedic practice, which is known to use cannabis. Historic texts document the use of cannabis in treating conditions of the skin and lymphatic system.

However, despite being widely used in the past, the country is now ruled by Chinese law – which means that cannabis use is illegal, even for medicinal purposes.

Industrial hemp in Tibet

Chinese law permits the cultivation of industrial hemp. As such, its growth is permitted in Tibet.

In the past, hemp was an important crop for the Tibetan people. It remains so today, though it is not regarded as a staple. The plant is used for a variety of different purposes.

A group of men measuring the height of hemp plants

Hemp is also used in textiles. In Lhasa, the market stalls often sell brightly coloured hemp clothing, and accessories made from hemp fibre. Rural Tibetans traditionally used to wear long cloaks woven from coarse hemp, which proved to be durable and hard-wearing. These also served as carrying pouches when wrapped around the body – a practice that continues to this day.

Good to know

If you are travelling to Tibet (or currently live there), you may be interested to know the following:

  • Some travellers report seeing cannabis used openly in Tibet, with people smoking it in bongs. Cannabis is supposedly readily available in rural markets.
  • Tibet has a rich history of cannabis consumption. It was particularly valued for its role in Tantric Buddhist practices.
  • The politically-charged situation between China and Tibet has resulted in unrest and protest. Human rights activists have highlighted the treatment Tibetan people had received under Chinese rule. Documented human rights abuses include: the death penalty, torture and unfair prison arrest.

Cannabis history

Most experts believe that cannabis originated in Central Asia. However, a few suggest that the plant’s original home might have been in the Taklimakan desert, which lies just north of Tibet, in China.

A desert with a tree in the background and footprints leading up the dune

It is now believed that cannabis in its most primitive form actually originated in Tibet, in an area known as the Tibetan Plateau, between 27.8 million years ago and 19.9 million years ago.

Cannabis and hemp have been cultivated and used in Tibet for centuries. Indeed, the ancient people of the country valued the strength of hemp paper so much that most of their monastic texts were written on it.

In Tantric Buddhism (which was practiced in the Tibeto-Himalayan region), cannabis played an important role in meditation, which may have also involved sexual intercourse. Large doses of cannabis were supposedly used to heighten awareness during the ceremony.

Indeed, the plant has long been considered sacred in Tibet. Mahayana Buddhists believed that, in the six years preceding his enlightenment, Buddha survived on just one hemp seed per day. Buddha is sometimes even shown with ‘soma’ or cannabis leaves in his begging bowl.

It’s important to note that most modern Buddhists are against drug-taking in general, as they believe it weakens the mind. In February, the Dalai Lama (who supports the use of medicinal cannabis), stated that he did not use it personally, and that it was ‘considered poison’ unless administered as a medicine by a doctor.

Cannabis has been grown across the country for hundreds of years. In 1913, when F. Kingdon Ward travelled through Tibet, he commented on the large plantations of hemp, usually situated close to villages.

A wooden figurehead with cannabis buds placed around it

Attitudes to cannabis

Culturally, cannabis has always been important to the Buddhist Tibetan people. Although it’s uncertain to what extent it was used in religious rituals, it’s likely, based on evidence from other Buddhist countries, that it was used to some degree.

However, these days, most Buddhists are against the consumption of cannabis. There are no available figures on prevalence of use in Tibet, but it seems unlikely that many people use it recreationally. This is especially likely to be the case given the strength of the Chinese law, and it’s firm anti-cannabis stance.

Cannabis cultivation in Tibet

Wherever cannabis originated, what’s known for sure is that it spread quickly through Asia. In Tibet, it’s thought that the original local biotype was hemp-like, with tough fibres and low levels of THC. This theory makes sense, as the wild cannabis growing in the country still fit this description, though some plants have higher cannabinoid content.

Nowadays, cannabis cultivation is known to occur in the Kyi Chu River Valley.

Hashish production

Tibetan hashish production uses similar methods to other countries in the region, such as Nepal, northern India and Bhutan. Some anecdotal reports claim that Tibetan hashish was renowned for its superior quality, and much sought-after, even in hash-making areas like Nepal.

A poster which says "Nepalese Temple Balls" and six plastic bags of hashish

Tibetan cultivators make hashish by rubbing the relevant parts of the cannabis plant in their hands. The heat and pressure of their palms causes decarboxylation to occur, which converts the cannabinoid acids into cannabinoids. The hashish is then rolled into a large ball. These sizeable balls are called ‘temple-balls’, as they were traditionally piled up in stacks at temple entrances, and sold by monks to raise money for maintenance and everyday necessities.

Most reports agree that high-quality Tibetan hashish is very dark and soft. It’s almost black in appearance and doesn’t have the green-tinted interior of other Pakistani and Indian samples. The effect is cerebral, without causing drowsiness.

Will cannabis be legalised in the future?

It seems unlikely that Tibet’s cannabis situation will change while the country is governed by Chinese law. The strict punishments, which can include the death penalty, act as a deterrent in a country that’s already not pro-cannabis use.

However, given that the world is embracing the ‘green rush’, China may start to appreciate Tibet’s profit-making potential in terms of growing medicinal cannabis and industrial hemp. 

  • Disclaimer:
    While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this article, it is not intended to provide legal advice, as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.


8 thoughts on “Cannabis in Tibet – Laws, Use, and History”

  1. Dominique Diglio

    Very thorough article. I wish there was more on cannabis and its connection to Tantric Buddhism in Tibet in it. Does anyone here have any info on Vajrayana scripitures or Buddhist texts where the use of hemp/cannabis was used in meditation practice?

  2. Interesting article – more research is needed. One important point is that smoking of anything is generally forbidden and discouraged in all forms of Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism.

  3. -In 2009, four Tibetans were executed in Lhasa, although it is not clear if their convictions were for drug trafficking.- ?

    1. Of corse they were political prisoner strugeling freedom in Tibet ,killing them by making them fake drug trafficker is common in Tibet

      …. free Tibet

  4. Cannabis grown wildly in Tibet, but it is widely used now as previously when people use it’s seed in food and tea. It is highly stigmatized through Chinese law so people in cities and town take it as other hard narcotics.. though cigarettes are cheap and sold everywhere.
    Being a Lhasa local who loves cannabis,people like me has to rely on widelygrown cannabis mostly northern valley known as Dhogde in Lhasa. Strangely new strains of cannabis pop up as stoners here plant foreign seeds occasionally.

    1. Now a days in Lhasa cannabis is totally underground.most commonly use cannabis is in form of hash obtained from widely grown seedfull grass found northern part of the city. Muss is the name code by which locals go for cannabis since early 90’s. Use of cannabis for religious ritual is known but not in every sects of Tibetan Buddhism. Personally met a monk from Drekung who asked little pieces of black hash from us for his ritual back in 2012.


    Very well written though I SUPPORT the world libralization of Cannabis the sacredgrain.The illicitization and illegality prohibibitionist efforts are a scurge on humanity and the possible results of this drug war hallocaust that has allowed governments to illegally distribute and profit from the financial fallout that supports right wing profiteers and arms traffiking andcould be why cancer is said to be the global leading cause of deathbin ten years time.SANDERS 2016 Chris Young

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