Marijuana and India: The Obsession with Legalization
Updated: Mar 1
The legalization of marijuana has become a hotly debated topic in India recently; it has further divided the people into two sects, questioning whether legalization is a good option or not?
Image Credits: Reddit
India’s relationship with ganja, charas, and bhang has been a love-hate one, though majorly it has been the former. Just as complicated is the understanding of different parts of the cannabis plant, (which becomes all the more important to know as consumption or possession of the wrong part can send you behind bars) so is its history, cultural influence, contribution to medicine, and the laws governing it. From arguably being a highly praised drink soma known for relieving anxiety in the Vedic period to being purported as a dangerous drug looked down upon by mainstream society. What has changed? Should marijuana attain its past glory? Should it be legalized?
The crackdown on celebrities for alleged possession of illicit drugs and connections with the drug mafia; and its sensationalist portrayal by the mainstream media was met with mixed reactions varying from generation to generation. Young adults joked about how the Narcotics Control Bureau would let these celebrities go scot-free if they found the quantity of maal the average college student had; while their parents supported the NCB unequivocally, declaring how the bad influence of the celebrities reflect poorly on society.
This difference of opinion can be attributed to the fact that we may have imported this latter disgruntled view of marijuana’s association with crime and social stigma from the US some thirty-five years ago. Despite having opposed the classification of cannabis, alongside dangerous and highly addictive opioids like heroin during the 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs, India eventually gave in to the pressure in 1985; as in the Cold War era, India not only needed the US as an ally but also required access to American technology. As the times changed, the US has had a change of heart and is moving towards a green wave, a vindication for India to rethink its policies around cannabis.
India enacted the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act in 1985, effectively criminalizing cannabis in the form of flowers (ganja) or resin (charas) while allowing the sale of bhang, a paste of the leaves ground on a mortar & pestle. Bhang has deep connections with ancient Hindu tradition and custom, especially the cult of Shiva.
The Tenacious Trinity
While Big Pharma companies may argue that their synthetic marijuana products are superior to traditional marijuana, the evidence does seem to indicate that the plant is as good as, if not better than, its synthetic counterparts through research on the effects of organic marijuana is scant. Despite the fact that Big Pharma could enter the organic marijuana production market, it may not be the wisest of choices as anyone can grow it in their backyard.
If marijuana is legalized as a medical alternative, Big Pharma may be faced with a significant competitive adversary. Evidence suggests that Big Pharma may not only respond strongly against legalisation but also prevent research that could shed light on the beneficial effects of organic marijuana. Rather than going after preventing legalisation, proving one’s products as safer and more effective seems like the more tenable approach in the long run.
Most of us have heard one of our friends say, “Marijuana is not a drug, it is a plant. It’s cleaner to smoke marijuana than to smoke cigarettes.” Prima facie, it makes sense when presented with a false dilemma of marijuana vs. cigarettes/alcohol, even when research suggests taking any while the brain is in development has adverse effects. Addiction to marijuana is more likely if you begin to use it prior to the age of 18.
When Bob Marley said, “When you smoke the herb, it reveals you to yourself” he must not have realized that finding oneself is something that perhaps adolescents struggle with the most, and the 'herb’ may not be the best way to do that. Easy and inexpensive availability, acceptance in popular culture, and possibly a positive medicinal history make marijuana an attractive drug for young people which is a serious concern. While awareness goes a long way, stringent regulation needs to be in place to keep marijuana off the hands of this age group.
A few months back, India supported the United Nations' resolution to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from the category of 'most dangerous substances' by voting in favor of the proposal.
Feature image credits: UN. Org
Hailed as a historic move on the International front, the ground reality seems largely unaffected. “It is an international convention, which cannot have a direct impact on drug laws in India. It will not be right to say that India’s stance on cannabis has softened,” a senior officer in the Narcotics Control Bureau said in an article in The Print. Local laws have that power and unless they are amended, there will be no tangible change. In 2018, Uttarakhand became the first state to allow farmers to cultivate hemp plants, followed by Madhya Pradesh in 2019. Legalization will increase revenue and taxation to the Government. The regulation will also reduce the costs of buying for the end-user as the drug dealers in the black markets tend to sell the drugs at very high or arbitrary prices. This will eliminate the Black market production. There will also be quality control as the government will have a say in regulating THC and CBD levels. It will also provide an additional source of income to thousands of farmers.
Countries like Germany and Israel import medical marijuana flowers worth millions of dollars each year, and the demand is only about to shoot up. India is already a big exporter of illegal marijuana and Charas. The creation of custom export zones like the farmers' fields to the ports backed up by a system of processing plants and allied industry can enable India to become a global green leader.
Besides exports, medical marijuana can also help millions of Indians suffering from cancer. Research suggests that marijuana helps cancer patients heal in many ways. It alleviates the pain and helps regain the appetites of cancer and AIDS patients. It also allows terminally ill people to “die with dignity”, without much pain and suffering.
But can you get a license and consume cannabis for medicinal use only? No. While the use of medical cannabis is technically legal, its cultivation is regulated depending upon the scientific conditions mandated by the respective state Government (i.e. maximum limit of THC, security measures for cultivation, etc). The growth of non-industrial cannabis is illegal. If the source itself is deemed unlawful, the legality of the way it is consumed is irrelevant. While each state of India is allowed to make their own rules and regulations as far as this is concerned, no state has done so. In reality, it is an impasse.
There are numerous reasons to consider allowing for the legal cultivation of medical-grade cannabis. A number of indigenous research institutes and doctors would be able to obtain licenses to conduct studies on different strains of cannabis and have a database of primary research on the medical benefits of cannabis. They could find ways to administer low psychotropic levels to treat children and young adults as well. We may even come up with alternative treatments in Ayurveda for the most grueling disorder which disrupts the lives of millions every year.
The green wave may grow to be worth over a trillion dollars. Hence, public-private partnerships should be encouraged to harness this green treasure trove which will also contribute to the dream of Atma Nirbhar Bharat before a wave of patents and foreign corporatization of Indian resources hijacks it.
The Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 defines India’s law around cannabis and its products (though there are various states that have their own laws around cannabis as well). The law prohibits and criminalizes the sale, possession, transportation, and cultivation of cannabis in certain forms throughout India.
Police nabbing 2 drug peddlers possessing 2 kgs of Marijuana, Hyderabad (June 4, 2019)
Image Credits: ANI
The act specifies charas as “the separated resin, in whatever form, whether crude or purified, obtained from the cannabis plant and also includes concentrated preparation and resin known as hashish oil or liquid hashish.” Ganja is defined under the act as “the flowering or fruiting tops of the cannabis plant (excluding the seeds and leaves when not accompanied by the tops)...any mixture, with or without any neutral material, of any of the above forms of cannabis or any drink prepared therefrom”. Notably, the Act specifically prohibits the sale and production of cannabis resin and flowers, while the use of seeds and leaves is allowed.
Apart from the NDPS Act, states have the power to draft their own laws on cannabis. Section 10 of the NDPS Act allows states to permit and regulate “the cultivation, production, manufacture, possession, transport, import inter-State, export inter-State, sale, purchase consumption or use of cannabis (excluding charas)”. For example, Uttarakhand became the first state in India to allow the commercial cultivation of hemp in 2018. Another state law is the Assam Ganja and Bhang Prohibition Act which outlaws the purchase, consumption and possession of ganja as well as bhang.
Section 20 of the NDPS Act talks about the punishment for manufacturing, possessing, selling, purchasing, transporting, importing and exporting inter-state or using the manufactured drug or any preparation containing any manufactured drug. For contravention involving a small quantity, there is rigorous imprisonment for a term that may extend to six months or a fine that may extend to Rs 10,000, or both. If it involves a quantity less than commercial quantity but greater than a small quantity, rigorous imprisonment may extend to 10 years with a fine that may extend to Rs 1 lakh. For cases involving commercial quantities, rigorous imprisonment will not be less than 10 years, but may extend to 20 years. A fine of not less than Rs 1 lakh (which can be extended to two lakhs) may also be levied. For cannabis and cannabis resin (charas and hashish) small quantities to commercial quantities is defined as 100 grams to one kilogram. Additionally, the Juvenile Justice Act provides separate rules for minors found in possession, consuming or selling cannabis. So, those below 18 cannot be prosecuted under the NDPS Act.
Undoubtedly a large number of Pharmaceutical companies use marijuana in their medicine products. As per the Forbes report in the year 2015, around 75% of companies use marijuana or its related products in their respective medicines. But the pharmaceutical companies have also lobbied federal agencies directly to prevent the liberalization of marijuana laws. This is because of the fact that if marijuana is legalised and put in a framework of medical use, then the leading pharmaceutical companies would face a stiff competition from the marijuana medicines. Also, these cheaper medicines would be even available to the poorest of the nation due to a schematic liberalisation of marijuana laws. Bradford's research shows promising evidence that medical-marijuana users are finding plant-based relief for conditions that otherwise would have required a pill to treat. The Report also states,“Cost-savings alone are not a sufficient justification for implementing a medical-marijuana program…The bottom line is better health.”
The producers of this respective plant will be affected by the matters of legalisation, the primary, secondary and tertiary employment would also be developed by marketing and branding of both recreational and medical cannabis. Cannabis production would not only provide a substantial revenue stream, including export earnings, but would also include these marginalised farmers into a systematic economic framework. In line with the advocacy to promote ethical agricultural practices, especially in cannabis, it presents new avenues for cannabis growers to contribute to mainstream agriculture. Baba Ramdev's Patanjali has successfully entered numerous domains and could be the first indigenous company to realize the investment potential in cannabis. It spoke about legalizing the plant last year and is reportedly carrying out industrial and medicinal research. In states like Himachal Pradesh where cannabis plants grow, marijuana is the only source of income for many locals. Himachal Pradesh legalizing the cultivation of marijuana could mean a new chapter for Indian states and cultivators. However, excessive misuse by locals and tourists and illegal cultivation needs to be checked before any such move is implemented.
The Himalayan Hemp Parable
The attractive Kullu region and its famed tourist destination of Manali and Parvati have also gained a reputation as an international hub for the smuggling of drugs. But not everyone in Himachal Pradesh thinks cultivation of cannabis, a prime source of hemp and charas, is a condemnable trade. The locals cultivating cannabis, now having developed expertise in sourcing hybrid varieties, are pushing for its legalisation, and even for making it a legitimate livelihood.
This poses a new challenge that the state vigilance is to fight against the drug trafficking racket and the cultivation of cannabis -- the basic source of charas, hemp and marijuana. The entire Kullu district and parts of Mandi, Chamba and Shimla are into cultivation of the weed as a cash crop, though it is done quite discreetly. Frequent police raids, destruction of standing crops of cannabis by the police and Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) have not been able to stop the cultivation. Every year, the cultivations spread through new inaccessible valleys and high mountain slopes.
First-time Kullu MLA Sunder Singh Thakur, who had earlier raised the issue in the state assembly asking for legalisation of cannabis, says, “Jai Ram Thakur government has no political will to take a decision, in our neighbour –Uttrakhand, the ruling BJP has already taken a call and legalised hemp cultivation. Today Uttrakhand has become a nodal state—a status that Himachal Pradesh could have acquired a long time back. Haryana is another BJP state having a policy, so is Jammu and Kashmir.”
He explains how some of the varieties of cannabis could be propagated as a source of natural fibre. This could be a value addition to the cannabis crop, which can be grown under a licence, and be made a source of employment. The former BJP minister and sitting MLA Ramesh Dhawala has suggested the state government to allow controlled cultivation of cannabis in certain areas for its use in the pharmaceutical industry, especially due to its demand in making cancer drugs. MLA Sunder Singh Thakur says, “Last year the court also passed an interim order asking the state government to examine its possibilities, to which the chief minister had also agreed. He entrusted the matter to the officers. Nothing has been done as this being a decision to be taken by the political leadership”.
Two Congress MLAs--Vikramaditya Singh, son of former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh and Anirudh Singh--from Shimla have also backed the legalisation demand. Former Horticulture minister Satya Prakash Thakur, who is also chairman of the internationally famous cooperative “Bhutti weavers", stresses the need for adopting the Uttarakhand model of cannabis cultivation as a legal way for the extraction of fibre, and its pharmaceutical use.
Himachali hemp-fiber shoes.
Image Credits: Amarujala
Recently a PIL was filed in Himachal Pradesh High Court demanding directions to the state government to legalise the cultivation of cannabis in areas under strict state control to reap the economic benefits. Currently, the police and law enforcement agencies are only destroying the cannabis fields using their resources and manpower. The Himachal Pradesh vigilance has a different insight to offer. The department suggests that, marijuana has been an excessive problem for the force and the illicit trade network has been increasing gradually over the years. As per police data, till July 31, as many as 1,170 Indians, including 44 women, and 13 foreigners were arrested under the NDPS act. In total, 914 cases have been registered; the police have recovered 202 kg of charas, 14 kg of opium and 26.3 kg of ganja beside other drugs from the accused.
I.D Bhandari, a former DGP, who himself had led several drives at Malana to eradicate the drug smuggling racket, recalls having detected hybrid cannabis plants, which were as high as six to seven feet. He added, “Malana cream, AK-47, Himalayan Queen, Black Gold, Skunk Balls are a few popular names having high demand. Malana cream is particularly known for its high potency and thus brings high returns to the locals dealing in the cultivation of cannabis and extraction of end-products."
Satya Prakash Thakur in his interview with The Outlook stated, “I don't favour any laxity to those who are in the narcotics trade in the garb of cannabis cultivation but definitely support demand for allowing non-narcotics varieties, which will hugely benefit the locals.”
These observations seem promising with regulation being the ballast for ensuring that things do not go the way common imagination makes it out to be. Cannabis farming may indeed prove to be a treasure chest with everyone knowing about its legendary benefits but the rumours of it being guarded by a serpent-like creature with multiple heads, akin to a huge drug nexus controlled by drug lords, may prevent its legalisation and regulation by the Union government. Till then marijuana lies in a dormant state with people remaining unbeknownst to the real value it has, waiting to reclaim its former glory upon rediscovery.
By Shreya Shukla & Nirmanyu Chouhan