Imagine if you could step out of your house, go to a government-approved shop, and buy weed before smoking up without the fear of getting caught. No venturing out to dingy lanes, dealing with shady dealers and smoking up in the confines of your room. In a country like India, with the weed ban in place, the thought seems pretty Utopian, right?
If that’s the case you’ll be surprised to know that until the 1980s, cannabis and opium were legal in India, and were sold in government-run shops and traded by the British East India Company. You simply had to get a certificate from government doctor and register yourself with an outlet, and voila! You could legally buy weed in the country.
Historical Relevance of Cannabis in India
It’s not surprising that the use of cannabis, in its various forms, found numerous takers in a country like India. Our country is deeply rooted in cultural, tradition and religion. So when religious texts, scriptures and legends promote the use of cannabis, it becomes pretty hard to argue with that logic. As a result, legal or not cannabis has always been a part of Indian history.
The Atharva Veda mentions cannabis as one of the five most sacred plants on Earth and says that a guardian angel resides in its leaves. It also refers to it as a “source of happiness,” a “joy-giver” and a “liberator”. Cannabis has also been associated with Lord Shiva. The legend goes that Lord Shiva wandered off into the fields after a personal conflict. Drained from the fight.he fell asleep under a leafy plant. On waking up due to hunger, he decided to sample the leaves of the plant under which he had slept. The instant rejuvenation felt by the god led to him making it his favourite food, and thus Lord Shiva also came to be known as the Lord of Bhang!
The Present Scenario
The fact that weed is illegal doesn’t seem to discourage Indians from well, rolling up a doobie. A study by Seedo ranked Delhi and Mumbai ranked among the world’s top 10 cities with the highest rates of cannabis (marijuana or weed) consumption per year. A 2019 study conducted by the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences reported that about 7.2 million Indians had consumed cannabis within the past year. According to the UNODC’s World Drug report 2016, the retail price of cannabis in India was US$0.10 per gram, the lowest of any country in the world. Even the swadeshi brand Patanjali, has been advocating for the legalization of weed in India!
Many countries have already legalized weed and various reports have been published advocating for the medical benefits of cannabis. So with country’s past association with ganja, how did it get managed to get banned in the first place?
Timeline of the Weed Ban In India
Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report, 1894
When the British came to India, they were taken aback by the widespread use of cannabis in the country. Fearing that the excessive, unregulated use of the plant may be detrimental for the people, they decided to document the use of cannabis in general. This lead to the birth of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report. The report was to look into the cultivation of the cannabis plant, preparation of drugs from it, trade in those drugs, the social and moral impact of its consumption, and possible prohibition.
However, the findings from the report were far from what the British believed it would be. It was found out that in moderation, the use of cannabis was harmless, and plans to prohibit the substance were shelved. “To forbid or even seriously to restrict the use of so gracious a herb as cannabis would cause widespread suffering and annoyance,” concluded the report. The reports findings, as we would find out, were not enough to prevent the weed ban in the country.
Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961
The global movement towards the weed ban was set in motion in 1961 with the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The 1961 convention was the first-ever international treaty to have clubbed cannabis (or marijuana) with hard drugs and imposed a blanket ban on their production and supply except for medicinal and research purposes. However, an opposing delegation, which India was a part of, opposed the move given that charas, bhang and ganja were heavily used in the country.
However, due to immense international pressure, the Indian government decided to compromise. India promised to limit the export of Indian hemp, on the condition that the definition of cannabis under the convention would be altered.
This move allowed bhang to be left out from the official definition. This small alteration is the sole reason why you can still find people consuming bhang during Indian festivals, in spite of a ban on cannabis in general.
Narcotic Drugs & Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985
The final nail in the coffin for weed ban in the country came in 1985. The 1961 treaty had given India 25 years to clamp down on recreational drugs. Under immense pressure from the “ War on Drugs” campaign led by President Nixon in the US, the Rajiv Gandhi led government passed the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act in 1985.
The Act itself has been the source of controversy for years. NDPS specified that cannabis meant charas (the resin extracted from the plant), ganja (the flowering or fruiting tops of the plant) and any mixture or drink prepared from either of the two permitted forms of marijuana. It banned the production and sale of cannabis resin and flowers, but permitted the use of the leaves and seeds, allowing the states to regulate the latter, essentially sparing the leaves and seeds from the stigma of being classified as contraband.
As a result, different states have different rules when it comes to bhang consumption and possession. In some states, only authorised dealers are allowed to sell bhang. Several states also have rules about the maximum amount of bhang one person can carry and the minimum age of the buyer.
The act considered Cultivation of cannabis for industrial purposes such as making industrial hemp or for horticultural use as legal in India. The National Policy on Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances even recognizes cannabis as a source of biomass, fibre, and high-value oil.
Efforts For Legalization of Weed
While the weed ban continues to be in place in the country, there seems to light at the end of the tunnel. The Great Legalisation Movement, which started off in 2015, seems to be gathering steam and has been a strong proponent for a change in the cannabis laws of the country. In July 2019, the Delhi High Court agreed to hear a petition, filed by the Trust, challenging the ban on cannabis.