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Marijuana and India: The Obsession with Legalization

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.

Udta Demand

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.