The Curious Case of Cannabis Criminalization in India

Cannabis, a plant notoriously known to be a gateway drug, grows openly in the Indian subcontinent – and has been criminalized under the NDPS Act of 1985. Under the Act, consumption or possession of the plant is a punishable offence. This illegal status given to cannabis comes as a surprise, given its existence in the religious and mythological history of India.

The Atharva Veda, one of the most important religious texts in Hinduism, included cannabis sativa in its list of the most sacred plants. A highly revered deity in Hinduism, Lord Shiva, has been known to be an active consumer of the plant. An entire sect of sadhus, all followers of Shiva, smoke the plant in various forms – commonly known on the street as charas, bhaang, or ganja. In fact, in temples dedicated to the deity, bhaang is given as prasad

One cannot help but marvel at the double standards at play in the criminalization of marijuana in India. On one hand, the NDPS Act puts the plant in the same category as hard drugs such as cocaine, heroine, and smack; on the other, it is being served in the form of bhaang in government authorized shops across the country. The hypocrisy is also evident in the implementation of this law, with the police focusing on detaining consumers, rather than the producers. In a country such as ours, it is impossible for such a thriving industry to function without the system having knowledge of its existence. The democracy in India is not so weakened yet that it has to depend upon its nexus with those which have been deemed illegal on paper. It is as if we are keeping one leg in the past and one in the future – being torn apart in the present while also being hit with the iron scales of law according to its convenience.

Indian data about cannabis is somewhat dubious, given the non-existent concept of keeping time, or dating documents. This has created an impossible situation for scholars to be certain of a timeline of cannabis usage in India. They have suggested that readers keep in mind that all the timelines before 17th century are mere estimates.

But the narrative changed completely in 1798, when the British crown imposed taxes on charas, ganja, and bhaang with the supposed intention of reducing consumption. From the benefits of cannabis consumption, talks turned unto its disastrous effects on human health. A landmark event was the advent of the War on Drugs, which caused the UN, in its Geneva Convention of 1961, spoke out against the illicit trafficking and usage of drugs, and requested all nations to cooperate in the quest for reducing drug consumption worldwide. 15 years later, in 1985, under the Prime Ministership of Rajiv Gandhi, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act was introduced. Under this Act, cannabis consumption, transportation, and cultivation were all deemed to be punishable by law. An amendment in 2014 increased the jail term from six months to one year of rigorous imprisonment.According to Aditya Barthakur, an advocate in the Bombay High Court, and Pune District Court, the criminalization of cannabis was unjustified due to its historical relevance in our culture. He believes that everyone is born with endocannabinoid systems, and thus is fundamentally wired to consume cannabis, and any law restricting the natural order of the human body can never be completely justified.

The question arises – why is the government so selective in its developmental strategies? It can be agreed that the past is gone, but the present NDA Government has never shied away from using religion to propagate its agendas and ideologies. So why has it not taken a strong stance on this issue, given its connection and historical relevance with regard to Hinduism? Legalization of cannabis will also benefit the country’s economy in many ways, especially in the agricultural and medical tourism industries.

India holds an 18% share of the global medical tourism industry. With the country’s rich heritage of cannabis cultivation and its usage medicinally, the footfall of this industry could show a massive increase if the plant is legalized and brought into use, albeit controlled. According to a report by the University of Colorado, cannabis can be a key factor in treating spasms caused by multiple sclerosis, nausea from chemotherapy, seizure disorders, migraines, and glaucoma. Along with this, with the current research being put into cannabis and its uses, breakthroughs are sure to come through.

Presently, the situation does not seem to be favourable in terms of the complete decriminalisation of cannabis. While it is illegal in India, the implementation of the laws associated with it is very selective, and is mostly biased towards unsuspecting consumers, and not drug cartels and dealers across cities.

To conclude, there is no better judge of a product than a consumer, and if people have had positive experiences with it, if it has historical context in our culture, if it is medically beneficial, and if it most definitely can boost the economy, then cannabis legalization deserves a trial run in the least. Simultaneously, the government must fund more research projects dealing with the benefits that can be reaped from cannabis, instead of turning its back on it.

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