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  • Rumaisha Ghina

Is It Greener in Aceh?

Aceh, a province located on the north of Sumatra, Indonesia, holds a unique perspective on two majorly opposite factors. Besides being the only region in Indonesia that enforces Sharia law, Aceh is known for its distinct cultural practices and historical context that have fostered a complex relationship with ganja (cannabis). From traditional uses to contemporary regulations, the existence of these particular plants in Aceh is rich with cultural significance and social implications.


The history of ganja in Aceh dates back centuries. According to the executive director of Yayasan Sativa Nusantara, Inang Winarso, ganja was first brought into Indonesia by Gujarati traders and sailors from India to Aceh approximately during the 14th century (Lumbanrau, "Sejarah Dan Budaya Ganja di Nusantara: Ritual, Pengobatan, Dan Bumbu Rempah Makanan," BBC Indonesia, 2020). Traditionally, ganja has been used in various forms across the province, deeply integrated into the daily lives of the Acehnese people.


Ganja use began in Aceh during the reign of Sultan Iskandar Muda in the Aceh Sultanate. At that time, ganja was used to help store food, as there was no modern equipment, like the modern-day refrigerator. Food wrapped in ganja leaves was said to last for days. Not limited to preservatives, ganja was also used by the Acehnese people as a seasoning to enhance the flavor of food and increase appetite, such as in kari kuah bebek, bu peudah, and even mixed into coffee.


Apart from its traditional use, ganja was also valued for its medicinal properties. Found in the kitab Tajul Muluk — an ancient manuscript from Arabia brought to Aceh by merchants and traders from Persia and Turkey around the 16th century — traditional healers in Aceh used ganja as an ingredient in various remedies. It was primarily utilized to treat diabetes. This medicinal use of ganja was a testament to the plant's perceived benefits and its integral role in Acehnese traditional medicine.


While ganja plays a significant cultural role in Aceh, the legal landscape surrounding its use has been nothing but tumultuous. Prices soared in 1976 after Indonesia signed the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (Abik, "Two former weed farmers tell us why Aceh’s marijuana industry isn’t going anywhere," Vice, 2019). Indonesia's national drug laws are stringent, classifying ganja as an illegal substance with severe penalties for possession, use, and distribution. For the past three years, the Badan Narkotika Nasional (BNN) has been running a program known as the Grand Design Alternative Development (GDAD). This initiative aims to convince farmers in Aceh to cease cultivating ganja and instead grow corn and other crops. Through these efforts, BNN has claimed that they have successfully decreased the number of ganja plantations in Aceh. However, there have been discoveries of ganja growing in the wilderness near the mountains, with no clear indication of who planted them or currently owns them.


The regulation of ganja in Aceh has had profound social impacts, affecting everything from community relations to individual lives. The clash between traditional ganja use and modern legal frameworks has created cultural tensions. For many Acehnese, the prohibition of ganja feels like an infringement on their cultural heritage and traditional practices. This tension underscores the broader conflict between local customs and national laws. Ganja is now viewed as a forbidden substance that must be avoided because it is seen as having no benefits and as a threat to the younger generation of Indonesia.


As debates about the potential benefits of legalizing ganja continue, it is essential to consider the cultural context and historical significance of ganja in Aceh. Balancing regulation with respect for traditional practices could pave the way for a more harmonious and beneficial approach to researching the medicinal benefits of ganja.


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