Opinion Think

Yes We Cannabis!

This is the third piece in a four-part series on Victimless Crimes.

Cannabis is consumed in multiple ways across many cultures. Bhang – the leaf of the cannabis plant – is alkaloid and bitter. But it’s often mashed up and drunk in milk with large dollops of clotted cream and sugar to disguise the taste. The coagulated resin, hasheesh or charas, is used as an ingredient in food. The marijuana oil is also consumed or used as a cooking medium.

Hasheesh is also smoked of course. The dried flower – grass, or ganja, or marijuana if you want to get all LatAm about it – is generally smoked. Infusions of ganja are also drunk, both medicinally and recreationally. The Mayans used to administer enemas, which apparently work even better in terms of quick efficient absorption into the bloodstream. The plant is also used to make hemp fibre for fabrics and sailcloth. Traditionally, the hangman’s rope used to be made from hemp, and cannabis was cultivated all over the world for that purpose.

The medical connection arises from the plant’s therapeutic properties as an anti-nausea agent and as an analgesic. Cannabis can help victims of excruciating pain, such as terminal cancer patients and amputees suffering pain in phantom limbs. It’s also used to alleviate side-effects of chemotherapy such as lack of appetite and nausea. Importantly, cannabis is not habit-forming – even after prolonged use, quitting is not difficult. But it does, in some cases, cause disorientation, paranoia and hallucinations.

Usage of the plant often has religious associations. The most obvious in the Indian context would be the usage by bhakts of Shiva and Devi. There are also the Naga sanyasis; multiple local animistic ceremonies across the entire country also deploy ganja. Sufis use it. Variants are used across the Middle East and Central Asia. The Rastafarians are merely the best-known of many Caribbean sects that use ganja. Native American tribes also use it all over the Americas.

Ganja and bhang used to be sold legally from shops run by the state governments in most states. (Opium is also sold from government shops in many states.) Hashish was illegalised in the 1960s, allegedly because the Americans demanded a ban on that form of the drug as a quid pro quo for supplying wheat under the PL480 program. Cannabis was banned in 1985 under the NPDS Act (Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act).

However, due to the religious connotations, this was a partial ban. Bhang is still sold from government shops all over the country, and ganja is also still sold legally in a few states. Uttarakhand has recently legalised cannabis cultivation for hemp fibre.

At the same time, a cannabis user could be busted and jailed under the NDPS. This is schizophrenic. It’s no better than the Federal US drug laws under which multitudes of Americans, a disproportionate number of them young men of colour, are locked up for using marijuana. According to the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), over half of all drug arrests are for marijuana-related “offences” and over 40,000 Americans are currently incarcerated for marijuana-related crimes.

The drug’s ban is a classic example of a victimless crime. It has also impeded research into its usage as a medicinal agent. For years, the drug was banned by governments, which acted in knee-jerk fashion. America was the most egregious but the drug was, and is, banned across many jurisdictions.

However, there’s been a sea change in global attitudes to cannabis in the past couple of decades. The Dutch have drug laws but they’re also easy about cannabis usage in the many hash cafes. The European Union has open borders, and the Dutch get many tourists doing the marijuana trail. In effect, this has meant the police in other EU countries also easing off on marijuana-related arrests.

The US started decriminalising in 2012 when multiple states opted to allow the recreational use of marijuana. (The first ballots were voted on along with the Presidential elections of November 2012.) At last count, 29 American states had legalised recreational sales of marijuana and therefore, allowed it to be sold and taxed at state level like any other commodity. However, federal laws still make marijuana illegal, which is confusing and has peculiar tax implications as well.

The legalisation gives us several years of experience in US states. The states that have legalised have gained a new revenue stream. Crimes have dropped – partly because marijuana possession and sales are no longer criminal, and partly because criminal activity is no longer necessary to market the drug. Teenage consumption doesn’t seem to have risen. There have been no “significant adverse consequences” so far.

Among other American nations, Uruguay is unusual. It never had drug laws or set limits on personal possession. Mexico and Colombia have started the process of legalising marijuana by decriminalising of possession for personal use. Brazil has also partially decriminalised, even though prison sentences can be handed out to dealers. Ecuador and Guatemala appear set for full legalisation.

It would make a great deal of sense to completely legalise cannabis usage across India. Allow sales, regulate the industry, impose taxes. The same arguments hold as with sales of alcohol and other substances. At the same time, allowing the sale of cannabis would enable this government to gain some brownie points with the religious. This would be win-win on many grounds except for government officials involved in the illicit trade. It would also put India in step with other nations which are increasingly liberalising this ‘soft” drug.

There’s a movement in civil society to legalise marijuana in India. The Great Legalisation Movement India (GLM India). has attempted to hold medical marijuana conferences in Bengaluru, Pune, Mumbai and Delhi, though it was forced to cancel most of those meets.

Several members of Parliament have also advocated legalisation. Tathagata Satpathy and Dharmvir Gandhi are two prominent Indian politicians who have pushed for legalisation.

Unfortunately, ideological objections probably mean that India will be left behind on this front. At one time, India was a prominent stop on the hippie trail. The fabled quality of Kerala grass and Himachali and Kashmiri hash drew many visitors while locals waxed eloquent about the less well-known delights of Manipuri and Kumaoni variants. Now, scientific growing techniques have led to the breeding of strains of grass with far higher potency (higher content of the active ingredient THC) in Holland and the US.

India has a large and vocal brigade of chauvinists – people who spend their time asserting that Indians invented everything from the zero (sort of true) to the autonomous flying vehicle (haha!) and head transplants ( vide Ganesh!). Well, those folks could, with justice and appropriate citations, claim that Indians had documented the usage of ganja in multiple ways many millennia ago. If only they devoted their energies to pushing for legalisation of this connection to our hallowed past!

About the author

Devangshu Datta

Devangshu Datta is a columnist. His Twitter bio says "Carnivorous, right-winger. Interests = markets, science, history, chess, bridge, sex, religion and anything with high troll-quotient. " That pretty much covers it.