The arrest of Rhea Chakraborthy for possession of weed and the systematic targetting of Bollywood celebrities on suspicions of consuming marijuana shows that India is nowhere ready to legalize the plant. In the past few weeks, mainstream journalists have aggressively campaigned for vilification of marijuana as an addictive and harmful drug, both of which are exaggerations of cannabis' properties and effects.
Marijuana users would refrain from calling it a 'drug' let alone equating it with hard drugs. The word ‘drug’ has negative connotations attached to it but since it's the term that attracts the highest TRP, television anchors continue to use it.
TV anchors such as Republic TV's Arnab Goswami and Times Now's Navika Kumar seem to be waging a war against marijuana or as they call it - ‘the lethal drug’, seemingly unaware that cannabis consumption has been popular in our culture since the Vedic times and that currently, Delhi and Mumbai are among the top 10 cities with the highest consumption of cannabis. Who even knows if they’re aware of the overwhelming amount of youth smoking cannabis, if not, they’ll definitely get a culture shock if they browse through Bingedaily or any other coming-of-the-age website.
Despite what the current outrage might lead you to believe, about 35 years ago, the consumption of marijuana wasn't considered a crime, and cannabis – or its resin (hash) and flowers (weed) and government shops sold and regulated the production of recreational marijuana.
How the Indian mainstream media is demonizing the cannabis plant
The iconic, "Mujhe drugs do" by Republic TV's founder Arnab Goswami will go down in history as one of the most bizarre acts performed on television for TRP. The video was part of a debate on the death of the actor, Sushant Singh Rajput, and Goswami was reportedly citing Rhea Chakraborthy's Whatsapp chats when he was saying, "Mujhe drugs do". All the while he called her a 'druggie' for consuming cannabis, propagating name-calling to stigmatize cannabis users.
There's another controversial chat found from Rhea's phone that has been extensively spoken about by the media. The conversation between Rhea and talent manager, Jaya Shah was alleged to hint at a conspiracy to mix CBD oil in someone's tea (Rajput's name wasn't explicitly mentioned but many channels assumed the 'someone' to be him).
This accusation wished to claim that Chakraborthy intentionally mixed drugs in Rajput's tea without his knowledge. The Print had raised a pertinent question regarding this accusation stating - how do we know she didn't have Rajput's consent before having this conversation, or when they finally took CBD oil?
Also, it's preposterous how CBD is being portrayed as a dangerous drug when it has scientifically-proven medicinal purposes. For those not familiar with the cannabis plant, Cannabidiol or CBD is a chemical present in the marijuana plant, which is known as cannabis Sativa. But CBD isn't psychoactive, rather tetrahydrocannabinol or THC is the component present in cannabis products that makes you feel 'high' after smoking weed.
CBD oil, therefore, doesn't fall under the category of psychotropic substances and that's why is commonly prescribed by doctors to treat anxiety disorders, insomnia as studies suggest that CBD can help with both, falling asleep and staying asleep.
CBD is also effective in treating different types of chronic pain. A study from the European Journal of Pain showed, using an animal model, CBD applied on the skin could help lower pain and inflammation due to arthritis.
If we were to go by Chakraborthy's revelations on Rajput's struggles with mental health, it makes sense that they were seeking to procure CBD oil as it's a well-trusted alternative therapy to treat symptoms of anxiety and depression. But nobody is interested in making this distinction between CBD and THC on Indian television and acknowledging the medicinal purposes of CBD, hence, misconceptions continue to thrive.
What was India's relationship with weed 35 years ago?
Amidst, the outrage over marijuana, it seems inconceivable to think that this plant was legal in India before 1985. It was a time when people could smoke weed without paranoia and that too, good quality marijuana unlike the shoe-polish laced cannabis products dealers now sell in major cities.
A 60-year-old man named Gurpreet S., in an interview with Vice India, explains what it was like smoking weed in India before its criminalization. He says that when he was younger, living in Delhi, cannabis could be legally bought in states like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh at government shops!
It was a strange time, though, as cultivation and consumption of cannabis were less socially acceptable than it is today. He recalls, "If you were seen smoking, you were called a junkie and so all of us did it behind closed doors." It's ironic that it's more acceptable now as most house parties, in contemporary times, serve marijuana along with alcohol. Back then, Gurpreet says, it would just be three or so smokers locking themselves in a room, passing around a joint and smoking in secret.
Potheads before 1985, scored weed through pushers similar to modern-day dealers and these pushers could be found quite easily. Gurpreet reminisces and says, "What we got was really good stuff and not like the crap you find today. Unfortunately, today, what you get (to smoke) is all crap. It’s very difficult to source good stuff and hence, I don’t smoke anymore."
He explains how he despises the current cannabis products in the Indian market. "I moved from Delhi to Mumbai in 1983, and when I tried to source some stuff, I realized there's something called Bombay Black (dubious hash notorious for containing everything from boot polish to cow dung to mehendi). Now, I smoke only once in a while when I go on holiday in the mountains, where I have friends," he reveals.
He presented several scenarios such as watching a cop and a pusher smoking a chillum together. "They were all very helpful. They would often ask us to sit with them and smoke," he recalls.
After weed got criminalized, nobody really enforced its ban strictly, it just gradually faded away but became much more popular among youth, Gurpreet says.
Even in Hinduism, there are mentions of weed and bhang when speaking about Shiva, the God of Destruction as it's known that Shiva has a fondness for bhang.
In the Rudrayamal Danakand and Karmakand Shiva tells his consort: “Oh Goddess, Parvati, hear the benefits derived from bhang. The worship of bhang raises one to my position.” The 19th century Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report recorded of Shiva’s cultic connection to cannabis. The report mentioned, "the hemp plant is believed to have been a great favorite of Siva and the drug in some form or other is extensively used in the exercise of the religious practices connected with this form of worship."
It further reads, "There is evidence to show that on almost all occasions of the worship of this god, the hemp drugs in some form or other are used… these customs are so intimately connected with their worship that they may be considered to form in some sense an integral part of it." (IHDCR, 1894)
To this day, believers of Hinduism - holy men, sadhus, and ascetics celebrate one of their most important festivals, the Kumbha Mela, smoking chillums of hashish, and drinking draughts of bhang in honor of Lord Shiva.
India was pressured into cannabis prohibition by the US
India was quite content with maintaining a legal supply of cannabis in the country and the seeds of a cannabis ban were actually sown by the US. While the United States has now legalized weed for recreational and medicinal purposes, the acceptance towards the cannabis flower was not the same 60 years ago.
In the 1960s, America had run a campaign to ban the cannabis plant. The official reason given for banning the substance was to control the use of drugs and the involvement of organized crime in the cultivation and distribution of narcotics. However, there's an alternate theory that proposes the ban was a result of racist beliefs against Mexicans and the assumption that marijuana led to crimes.
In the beginning of the 20th century, cannabis was a little-used drug among Americans but as many Mexican began moving to the US in the 1910s, they brought a tradition of smoking marijuana with them. Due to the fear of Mexican immigrants, people were throwing hysterical claims around stating that the substance causes a “lust for blood."
And so, under Article 28 of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, at the United Nations, cannabis was put under the list of substances to be highly regulated by the signatory state. As per the decisions made during the convention, only licensed personnel could cultivate or deal in the Cannabis plant in personal or commercial quantity.
India wasn't a signatory member of the 1961 treaty between nations to ban narcotics, including cannabis. However, under the pressure of the United States, India's Rajiv Gandhi-led government succumbed and passed the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act or NDPS act in 1985.
Under this law, the government criminalized the use of charas (separated resin, crude or refined), hashish (a purified form of charas), ganja (flowering or fruiting top of the cannabis plant), but not the leaves, which Indians use to make bhang. This remains to be the sole part of the cannabis plant that is legal.
Bhang was exempted from the marijuana ban due to its religious significance
You can easily buy a bhang goli (bhang pill) from your neighboring pan shop in India as, under the NDPS act, state governments have the power to permit, control, and regulate the cultivation of cannabis plants.
They also oversee the production, manufacture, possession, transport, inter-state import, and export of the plant and its derivatives.
Bhang is commonly used as an ingredient in cool drinks and sweets during festivals of Holi and Shivratri; the sale and consumption of bhang are relatively acceptable than smoking weed due to the former's religious significance. But if you're caught in possession of the cannabis flower in India, you can be punished for up to one year with a provision of a fine up to Rs.10,000 or both. And people found involved in the illegal trade of growing cannabis or selling the plant can be jailed for up to ten years or face a fine of Rs.1,00,000 or both.
In recent years, many citizens and even politicians such as Shashi Tharoor have pushed for cannabis legalization to regulate its consumption and also for the possible economic boost it could provide. However, with the continued stigmatization of marijuana on popular media, cannabis legalization seems more like a pipe dream than an actual possibility.