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Should India make Cannabis legal?

Given its widespread use and the ancient and well-established culture of marijuana consumption in this country, it’s time for a conversation on decriminalising the drug.

In the first week of September, in a sensational twist to the Sushant Singh Rajput death case, the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) arrested the late actor’s girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty, her brother Showik and 10 others for the alleged possession, transportation and purchase of ganja (weed) and charas (hash), all derivatives of the cannabis plant. In its charge-sheet, the NCB says it has recovered 59 grams of weed and five grams of a dark brown substance suspected to be hash from three suspects so far. The quantity recovered is far less than the 1 kilo specified as ‘small quantity’ under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances or NDPS Act, 1985. As Suhas Gokhale, former chief of the Azad Maidan unit of Mumbai’s anti-narcotics cell, declared two days after Rhea’s arrest, “A sadhu’s chillum holds more marijuana than what she is being convicted of.”

Indeed, cannabis consumption is common across the country and does not attract the kind of stigma attached to other narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances being consumed illegally in India. In a 2019 study commissioned by the social justice and empowerment ministry, 31 million people in India were reported to have consumed a cannabis product in the past year, of which 13 million had used weed and hash. Cannabis consumption was higher in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Sikkim, Chhattisgarh and Delhi than the national average. Based on the annual figures held by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNoDC), a 2018 study by German data firm ABCD placed Delhi third on the list of 120 cities with the highest consumption of cannabis, ahead of Los Angeles, Chicago and London. Mumbai was sixth.

In fact, in the past few years, there has been a growing clamour by non-governmental organisations to legalise the recreational use of cannabis, as other countries have done. On November 7, 2019, the Delhi High Court sought the government’s stand on one such petition filed by the Bengaluru-based advocacy non-profit, the Great Legalisation Movement India Trust. The organisation, founded in 2014, wants cannabis removed from the NDPS Act. The legalisation of marijuana, the organisation believes, can help create jobs, battle stress, improve human concentration, resolve medical problems and provide sustainable agricultural incomes, among other things. Cannabis, the petition argued, is integral to the country’s cultural fabric; its criminalisation leads to needless harassment and stigma.

Given this widespread prevalence of cannabis consumption and calls for its decriminalisation, the NCB arrests in the Rajput case have triggered a furious debate across the country on whether the agency’s enthusiasm was misplaced or even hypocritical. Going by the logic of Rhea’s prosecution, cannabis legalisation advocates say, thousands who smoke weed and hash openly during the Kumbh Mela or on Shivratri should be arrested. Defending their action, a top NCB source said that while cannabis use has been widespread in India, its consumption of late has gone up, as have the dangers associated with it. “It has become serious in the sense that every strata of the population is into it, poor, middle-class or rich,” he says. “Illegal imports of the weed from US or Canada have become popular among the upper echelons of society.” Denying that the agency was being vindictive against Chakraborty, the source said, “We are looking at the problem from a professional point of view. Parties where drugs are being misused have become common in Bollywood and other places. By investigating such complaints of drug abuse, we can detect the network of peddlers and the big illegal commercial suppliers. We want to send the message that this is a wrong thing to do and we need to create awareness across agencies and governments to have it eradicated.”

However, barring the recent spurt in the Rajput case, arrests for the possession of cannabis by the NCB and state police have been fitful, experts say. The NCB has been extra vigilant only in the first fortnight of September, seizing 5,477 kilos of cannabis from various medicine and vegetable trucks across the country and arresting 13 individuals for the same. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2018 shows a 25 per cent rise in drug seizures, with weed topping the list at 391,275 kilos; hash fourth on the list after acid and opium at 3,911 kilos. However, while the quantity of drugs seized has risen, the number of cases against those found in possession of drugs for personal use has fallen, from 41,056 in 2017 to 38,715 in 2018. And these are numbers for all drugs; the arrests for cannabis possession and consumption may be even lower. A study by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy last year noted that most people arrested for cannabis possession are the poor and marginalised, while bigger sellers escape unscathed. “Usually, more seizures are made where cannabis is cultivated and not sold,” says Romesh Bhattacharjee, a former Narcotics Commissioner of India. “It is the small and medium farmers who get harassed, not the larger sellers and buyers in big towns and cities.”

Importantly, as Bhattacharjee points out, cannabis is cultivated in nearly 60 per cent, or 400, of India’s 670 districts. It is considered a medicinal plant that has benefited humans and animals over the centuries. “Since we criminalised cannabis in India [in 1985],” he says, “we haven’t curbed production or consumption. The law is redundant and has become a tool to harass small-time or poor buyers and sellers. Bhang is already legal in some states. There are millions of weed and hash users in major cities. You might as well legalise cannabis, and follow it with drug awareness outreach if you are worried about addiction. Sensitisation and dialogue are more effective in curbing addiction than half-hearted criminalisation.” As to how to legalise cannabis, he has a simple answer: “Just remove it from the Narcotics Act. It is already ‘legal’ on the streets given its availability, only ‘illegal’ on paper.”

A POTTED HISTORY

Cannabis has been popular in India since the beginning of recorded history. Kansas University geographer Barney Warf, in his 2014 research paper ‘High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis’, speculates that the plant was most likely brought to India by Aryan migrants between 1000 and 2000 BC. It is treated as a sacred plant in the Vedas, considered a source of joy. The Hindu god Shiva is revered as the Lord of Bhang. In British India, the Indian soldiers reputedly sipped bhang even as their foreign counterparts took swigs of whiskey before battle.

In fact, the British found the use of cannabis so extensive in India, that, concerned it would endanger the mental health of the natives, they commissioned a study on its cultivation and use in 1894. Over a thousand interviews were conducted among a wide range of people, from farmers to psychologists. The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report produced six volumes of data and concluded that there was no justification to suppress the use of cannabis; given its ancient and religious relevance, it was harmless when taken in moderation. In 1957, CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) researchers I.C. Chopra and R.N. Chopra reviewed the report and reiterated that the findings held true over the years. It was only in 1985 that cannabis was criminalised under the NDPS Act, inviting imprisonment.

CANNABIS 2.0

Experts say an entire generation of Indians now regards cannabis as a harmless, ‘casual’ drug. “It is an affordable drug which is often viewed as ‘spiritual’,” says Girish Kurra, founder of the Umeed Wellness Clinic, a rehab centre in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj locality. He points out that the same people who smoke cannabis usually do not wish to try more refined drugs such as cocaine or heroin, which they believe are more addictive. In fact, many cannabis users are wary of even cigarettes and alcohol.

Today, there is a booming market for cannabis and related products, particularly among the youth. You only need to visit Delhi’s Paharganj area to encounter a whole cornucopia of cannabis products, Idukki Gold, Shillong Mango, Mysore Mango, Malana Kush, to name a few. Sellers compete with each other to proclaim they have the ‘purest’ product, the stuff ancient rishis once used. “It is absolutely safe to smoke weed, nothing addictive about it,” a shopkeeper assures me. While the weed is sold discreetly here, the smoking gadgetry is on open display, from a dazzling array of chillums, rolling paper, rolling machines. There is even a recipe book for cannabis which includes notes for ‘weed pizza sauce’, ‘weed wine’ and ‘weed coffee’. Row after row of shops hang merchandise outside their doors featuring the customary leaf design, images of Shiva rolling a joint and weed humour often in shades of bright neon on black.

Cannabis-spiked paan, brownies, chocolates and beer are the stuff of the past, a customer tells me. The young can now look forward to cannabis bath products, lip balm, toffee, cheese and dried noodles. “Cannabis is no longer the milk drink had at a festival or a substance smoked in a chillum—there is a bewilderingly wide range of creative products,” says Dr Rahul Luther, psychologist and founder of the Hope Trust, a deaddiction centre and rehab clinic in Hyderabad. The ABCD report shows Delhi to be among the top 10 cities in the world for cheap weed, second only to Latin American countries. Cheap ‘weed dust’ can be bought for as little as Rs 50, while 10 grams of average quality weed can cost anything between Rs 100 and Rs 250 in Delhi. Catchy products add to the appeal of weed amongst the youth, say experts. “Earlier, it would be the working class who would use these drugs,” says Dr I.R. Rajkumar, a psychiatrist and founder of the Alpha Healing Clinic in Vadodara, Gujarat. “Now it is the young that the drug-sellers target—90 to 95 per cent of all addiction begins between the ages of 12 and 25.” There is, however, no data to support his contention.

According to social justice and empowerment ministry data, there were 7.2 million ‘problem users’ of cannabis in 2018. Most counsellors stress the importance of sensitising young people to the dangers of drug addiction before it is too late. “Why do we wait till they are teenagers? Between the ages of 5 and 12, parents must be made aware of the importance of connecting and conversing with their children. If explained the harmful impact of drugs at a young age, the chances of addiction are much lower. It is because in India, society claims no responsibility for drug users, and parents don’t feel the need to guide a child through their adolescent years that young people are now using weed more and more,” says Dr Rajkumar. It starts with curiosity, he says, or to get a sense of identity or simply out of peer pressure. Often, it is also to escape circumstances or reality. “Some people can’t handle emotional realities and begin to use weed or other drugs to escape reality,” says Kurra. “They feel it numbs their reactions and makes them more peaceful. They turn drugs into a coping mechanism, which is harmful.”

CANNABIS PSYCHOSIS

A few months ago, Nakul Mehta, a 31-year-old marketing executive in Mumbai, walked out of a city drug rehab centre with some shocking news. Scans of his brain showed minor damage, reasons why doctors said he had become forgetful, more sensitive to stress and was having trouble with his eyesight. Mehta, who would smoke weed daily for three years, reached a stage where he began to display hallucinatory behaviour. His family admitted him for treatment after he tried to jump off the roof of their home in Bandra. Doctors who examined him said his symptoms were associated with cannabis psychosis and the result of repeated daily cannabis consumption. They concluded the products he was being sold were mixed with other, more harmful psychoactive compounds. These, together, with the cannabis addiction, wreaked permanent damage on his brain. Such cannabis-induced psychosis is getting increasingly well-documented in all major medical journals, and is now classified as a mental health illness by the medical community.

“There are some myths about weed and marijuana that need to be urgently addressed,” says Dr Luther. “Most people believe weed is spiritual, not harmful and certainly not addictive. Many also say that weed is medicinal, citing the fact that it is used in cancer treatment. These are all beliefs peddled by a multi-billion dollar drug industry. The addictive component in weed is mixed with other medicines to be used in any sort of treatment. Cannabis itself is harmful and can cause mental health issues.” Experts say cannabis consumption is in many ways similar to alcohol and tobacco use. But does addiction to smoking and drinking invite calls for their prohibition as the use of cannabis does?

The addictive factor of cannabis depends on the amount of tetrahdyrocannabinol or THC, the active compound that produces psychoactive sensations. Some products might be pure, but they are also expensive, almost Rs 3,000 for a gram, and therefore out of reach of most. Others that promise to be pure are mixed with other chemicals to make it addictive. “Cannabis is like a cigarette, we think only nicotine is addictive, but a person is smoking 4,000 chemicals with each cigarette. The same with cannabis—most of the time you are inhaling much more than just cannabis, even if it is from a ‘trusted dealer’,” says Dr Rajkumar. Samples of marijuana in India frequently reveal a higher level of THC, which gives the drug its high, and lowered levels of CBD or cannabidiol, which counters the effect of THC when the drug is consumed. A 2016 study in the National Centre for Biotechnology Information showed that out of 36,000 samples of illegal cannabis from around the world, THC levels had risen from around 4 per cent in the 1990s to nearly 12 per cent in 2014, shifting the ratio of THC to CBD from 1:14 in 1995 to about 1:80 in 2014.

According to a 2018 article, ‘Cannabis Addiction and the Brain: A Review’, available in the data base PubMed, cannabis use disorder (regular use of cannabis or THC-spiked products) mimics the same patterns of addiction (anticipation of drug, intoxication with drug, withdrawal from drug) as hard drugs. However, a 2007 study in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry observed that those who smoked cannabis and displayed symptoms of psychosis but had no other mental health issues showed signs of recovery within a week of abstinence. It is the social belief that cannabis is not the cause of mental health issues that allows many users to relapse into addiction, making cannabis addiction harder to treat than the dependence on refined drugs that have a greater perceived risk among users. “Cannabis might not be as strong as coke or heroin, but because people are often in denial over its harmful effects, many users return to smoking cannabis even after rehab,” says Dr Luther.

A CASE FOR DECRIMINALISATION

There has been much debate over legalising marijuana. Globally, in the past decade, several countries have legalised the consumption of cannabis for medicinal purposes, while Uruguay and Canada have legalised it entirely. At present, 11 states in the US have legalised cannabis for recreational use, and another 16 for medicinal research. The reasons cited included marijuana being a less harmful drug, its widespread use and the fact that decriminalising it would encourage more conversation around responsible drug consumption. In 2018, Canada became only the second country after Uruguay to formally legalise the cultivation, possession, acquisition and consumption of cannabis and its byproducts. Several European countries, including Austria, Belgium and the Czech Republic, also allow controlled possession and cultivation of marijuana (see World Wide Weed).

These arguments, however, have not convinced the Indian government so far. Says an NCB source: “Yes, many countries are doing so. The US is the biggest votary of medicinal and other uses [of cannabis]. It is pushing for it to be legalised internationally. But there is a lot of resistance from other countries. In India, we do not support legalising it, as a matter of government policy. The main reason [is that] it is likely to be more abused than used.”

The NCB is also pushing for amendments to the NDPS Act so that it is more stringent on peddlers rather than consumers. One of the important modifications the NCB is pushing for is the re-classification of offences under the Act for personal consumption, small drug peddlers and the big commercial dealers. Many of the big dealers take advantage of current provisions that are less harsh to small peddlers and escape lightly. “For the consumers,” says an NCB source, “especially for first-time offenders, the punishment should be moderate and they should face less harassment. So, we have suggested changes that are both deterrent in nature and constructive.”

Other experts propound an economic argument for legalisation. Given India’s production capacity of cannabis, the government stands to benefit in terms of tax, India alone accounted for 6 per cent of the world’s cannabis herb seizures in 2016 (nearly 300 tonnes), and even higher quantities in 2017 (353 tonnes), a 20 per cent increase compared to 2016, as per a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. The ABCD report estimated how India could gain in taxation terms if it were to legalise a product that continues to exist despite attempts to crack down on it. New Delhi could raise up to Rs 725 crore a year, while Mumbai could raise Rs 641 crore if weed were taxed at the same rate as the most popular cigarette in the city. If the average US tax rate on marijuana is applied, Delhi could raise Rs 225 crore and Mumbai Rs 199 crore.

Yet others believe the NCB time would be better spent chasing more harmful drugs than cannabis. The real worry is that drugs like heroin and cocaine, or synthetic drugs like Ecstasy are more dangerous and circulate in large quantities. Heroin is smuggled in from countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Myanmar. The 2019 survey by the social justice and empowerment ministry estimated 6.3 million ‘problem users’ of heroin in India in the previous year. The NCB estimates daily consumption of heroin to be 1 tonne, so the total business would be worth over Rs 14.6 lakh crore per year, or 7.2 per cent of India’s GDP. By contrast, the 7.2 million ‘problem users’ of cannabis may be consuming Rs 1.29 lakh crore worth of the substance. A mind-boggling amount of synthetic drugs are also being illegally consumed, given that India is one of the world’s largest pharma manufacturers. The NCB needs greater resources and time to focus on cracking down on the peddlers of these drugs rather than cannabis.

L;egalising marijuana can also help reduce addictive behaviour by erasing the stigma around it. For instance, cannabis use fell drastically in Portugal after the country decriminalised weed and hash use in 2001. Among the strongest arguments advanced by those in favour of legalising cannabis is that the law has not served its purpose and a legalised product could also be better regulated for quality, price and commercial purposes. “There are a lot of adulterated cannabis products in the market. These are far more harmful than the pure plant. But there is no way to control quality for an illegal drug,” says Dr Rajkumar.

Consumption of cannabis has increased significantly despite the law in 1985, as per research by the Institute of Narcotics Studies Analysis (INSA), a New Delhi-based think-tank. The institute’s Jogendra Singh advocates stringent enforcement and not just regularisation of cannabis to curb the rise in its consumption. Others agree. “Cannabis consumption and production cannot be controlled in India. There is no point in turning a blind eye to the millions who consume it across the country. Given the consumption, the arrests under NDPS Act for cannabis are very little and largely done to heckle the common man. Doing away with a law which has not succeeded will provide relief to many,” says ex-Narcotics commissioner Bhattacharjee.

However, there is no scientific study yet to conclusively prove that legalising cannabis leads to a healthier relationship with drugs and substance abuse. “The crime rate might fall, but the addictive nature of drugs won’t change. We don’t need to make marijuana legal to protect young people from drug addiction, we need more dialogue over its influence and negative effects,” says Dr Luther. According to him, any attempt to legalise must be followed up with an open dialogue on drugs with young people, to make them aware of responsible and safe drug consumption. It’s a tough call, but India must settle the debate on whether or not to legalise the use of cannabis. Sooner rather than later.

with Anilesh S. Mahajan

Given its widespread use and the ancient and well-established culture of marijuana consumption in this country, it's time for a conversation on decriminalising the drug. – Issue Date: Sep 28, 2020

What it Was Like Smoking Weed in India Before it Got Criminalised

In India, the use of cannabis dates back to the Vedic times and has been a part of religious rituals and festivities for millennia. Attempts at criminalising cannabis were first made in British India, in the late 19th century. But until the late 1980s, cannabis and opium were legal in India, sold in government-run shops and traded by the British East India Company. Before India signed the Single Geneva Convention of 1961—which classified cannabis products and opiates as narcotics—ganja, charas, and bhang were sold through government outlets, as per a system laid down by the British government. The user had to get a certificate from a government doctor and had to register with the outlet for his quota. But the Rajiv Gandhi government succumbed to pressure from the United States that was campaigning for a worldwide law against drugs and in 1985, India passed the controversial NDPS—Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act—which banned the production and sale of cannabis resin and flowers, but permitted the use of its leaves and seeds.

Police in India Keep Seizing Large Quantities of Weed

Today, marijuana is so heavily criminalised that few people are willing to go on record and admit to using it. But we found one guy, a 60-year-old man named Gurpreet S. who agreed to explain what it was like smoking weed in India before criminalisation. Here’s what he said:

I was in Delhi when grass could legally be bought in states like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, at government shops. It was a weird time because even though the seed was legal, weed had lesser social acceptability than it does today. If you were seen smoking, you were called a junkie and so all of us did it behind closed doors. There was no question of a dealer contacting you or you getting in touch with them because we didn’t have mobile phones. But we knew where to find the pushers (dealers). Though they wouldn’t be found on main roads, they could still be found quite easily.

Because we were students and didn’t have much money, we would buy a pudiya (a parcel/packet) for three bucks. This would make us five joints. What we got was really good stuff and not like the crap you find today. I usually went near the Jama Masjid area to find the pusher I bought from and the process was very chill. Sometimes, he would be sitting with a cop outside his house and they’d be smoking a chillum together. They were all very helpful. They would often ask us to sit with them and smoke.

I remember how I was once in that area and had lost my wallet. I was stuck and so, in a state of panic, I went to the pusher I knew to ask if I could borrow some money. He told me to not worry, and to just sit with him and smoke a joint. He then asked an auto-rickshaw driver to drop me to college, and that I needn’t bother returning the money to him.

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. I moved from Delhi to Mumbai in 1983, and when I tried to source some stuff, I realised 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 holidays in the mountains, where I have friends.

Back then, there was no concept of getting busted by a cop. Even drinking and driving was more common and pardonable. I remember when I was a young guy and had just got married, I had parked my car by the side of the road and stepped out. A cop had come up to me and started asking asking questions. He got into an argument with me but then, another cop with him just tapped him on his shoulder and told him I was drunk and he should let me go!

The criminalisation of weed happened over time. Nobody really enforced it for a long time even after it was criminalised. However, even though it’s criminalised now, it’s far more socially acceptable today. You can now go to a party at someone’s house and smoke. Back then, it would just see three or so smokers locking themselves in a room, passing around a joint and smoking in secret.

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“Sometimes, the pusher would be sitting with a cop outside his house and they’d be smoking a chillum together.”