Time to legitimise cannabis?

In India, consumption of marijuana for recreational purposes is considered deviant behaviour, and the person who smokes it is stigmatised. But 18 states of the US have already allowed such use, and more states will undoubtedly follow suit

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Cannabis, also known as marijuana among other names, is part of Indian spiritual practice and provides a sense of euphoria or rejuvenation to the consumer. It is often associated with Lord Shiva, who consumed it while resting under a cannabis plant. In this country, cannabis popularly takes the form of bhang, charas and ganja.

Bhang is a paste made from the leaves of the cannabis plant, which is an integral part of Holi celebrations in northern India. Charas is the resin obtained by hand-rolling the cannabis flowers for hours, and ganja is the Sanskrit word for dried buds of the cannabis plant. Although they all originate from the same plant, bhang is the only form that can be legally used in India.

Bhang is mixed with foods and drinks to add flavour to Holi celebrations in the form of thandai or pakora. The drinks are distributed through legal government authorised shops. But the same plant when smoked or used for recreational purposes is considered illegal in India.

Cannabis derivatives were sold legally in India before 1985. Observing the impact of drugs on the US population and falling in line with the Convention of Narcotic Drugs in 1961, cannabis use in India except for bhang was criminalised. But the Act allows controlled and regulated cultivation of hemp (a plant from the same species as that of cannabis) for industrial and horticultural purposes.

Under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985, the procurement, sale and consumption of cannabis were rendered illegal. Under Section 20 of the Act, cultivation of cannabis can lead to a fine up to Rs 1 lakh and an imprisonment up to 10 years. An amendment was passed to rectify anomalies in the Act. Recently, the government has allowed the medicinal use of cannabis.

The most common medicinal use of cannabis is to treat chronic pain, inflammation, insomnia and epilepsy, among others. Sourab Agarwal founded HempCann in 2016, integrating ayurveda with cannabis to cure ailments. Cannabidiol (CBD) is an oil derived from the cannabis plant that helps in reducing inflammation and pain.

“The initial idea behind developing HempCann Solutions was to offer solutions to the various healthcare and environmental problems we are currently facing. Hemp/ Cannabis is a fast growing cash crop, which acts as a renewable resource and can be used to make more than 15,000 products”, said Agarwal.

He claims that cannabis is very effective in treating chronic and neuropathic pain. It is also efficacious for various symptoms and has disease modifying potential. One has to understand the Endocannabinoid system in order to figure out how cannabis is able to help in the treatment of such a wide variety of symptoms and diseases, added Agarwal.

“I contacted Medicinal Cannabis Foundation of India (MCFI) in late July to source CBD oil for a very close family member suffering from pancreatic cancer. Although we did not stop the conventional treatment, the use of Vijaya Capsules (CBD oil) proved beneficial. The first improvement we noticed was increased appetite. It’s now been almost seven months, and we are continuing it. I can safely say that it helped in improving the overall health of the patient. I highly recommend it, but it should not replace conventional treatment, like chemo”, said Anoop* regarding the medicinal usage of cannabis.

Questions have always been raised over making one form of the plant legal and other form illegal. If a particular substance is made legal, it is argued that all forms should be legal.

File Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Take the case of alcohol. According to the World Health Organisation, 5.1% of global disease and injury is due to alcohol. In India, drunken driving constitutes over 12% of road accidents and 10% of road accident deaths. In addition, consumption of drugs plays a part in the number of traffic accidents.

Does criminalising any substance reduce its popularity? Worldwide, it has been seen that the whole trade functions underground. The volume of trade in India can be gauged from the fact that the Narcotics Control Bureau confiscated 5,671 kg of ganja from the national capital in 2021.
Among substances allowed by the government in fiscal year 2020-21, India had a tax revenue of approximately Rs 27,59.43 crore from cigarettes alone. Revenue earned from Value Added Tax (VAT) on liquor increased to Rs 1,183.58 crore during the same period.

When the legalised use of alcohol and tobacco brings tonnes of revenue to the country, why should the exchequer not gain from a tax on cannabis?
Legalising cannabis can not only provide massive tax revenue to the country but give the state control over the sale of cannabis and prevent illegal possession and smuggling.

Cannabis is legal for medicinal and recreational purposes in Uruguay, Canada, the Netherlands, Jamaica etc. In the US, 38 states allow the medicinal usage of cannabis, and 18 states permit its recreational use.

The conservative view in India is that legalising cannabis will have a huge impact on youth and increase crime rates. However, studies suggest that in countries where cannabis is legalised, crimes related to it have reduced. Research done by the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service and Appalachian State University suggest that recreational cannabis laws in Washington and Colorado have actually reduced certain major crimes.

According to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment’s survey on ‘Magnitude of Substance Use in India 2019’, 2.83% of Indians aged 10-75 years were current users of cannabis, with 10% of the population being dependent users.

Online retailer Amazon was used for smuggling ganja online in Madhya Pradesh in 2021, where the racket allowed potential customers to search for the product through keywords. This created an easy interface between sellers and customers. Based on data acquired by Delhi Police, drug hotspots in the national capital include Nizamuddin Bridge, Rithala, Subhash Nagar and Paharganj among others. Though the trade is illegal, sellers find a way to reach customers.

A report by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy on decriminalisation of cannabis use in Indian states, “Criminalisation of drug use creates a parallel market of prohibited substances, taking them out of a regulatory apparatus. This leads to unrestricted access and unsupervised use of the substance.”
“Initially, we argued for the decriminalisation of cannabis. We looked at the data from Mumbai on how many NDPS cases were registered, and from there we understood that most of the cases were those of consumption. Also, most of the people who got arrested were very young slum dwellers. That’s when we understood that the law was so loosely drafted that it allows the police to arrest people from the roadside, affecting the marginalised communities.

This was the reason why we made an argument to decriminalise cannabis use”, said Navved Ahmed, the lead author of the report.
He further said that there is no point in criminalising something that is so prevalent. Either you divert the addicts to seek help from healthcare services or let them be. There is a general environment of prohibition that prevents an addict from accessing healthcare services due to the fear of prosecution.

The report concluded with the remarks: “Far from deterring users, criminalisation of cannabis has only led to the stigmatisation and overburdening of an already crumbling criminal justice system.”

“The Sikkim Anti-Drugs Act (SADA), 2006 does not utilise deterrence to curb drug use and releases a public health approach to protect the best interests of the drug user.”

The method opted by SADA has reduced the stigma related to drug cases, and the incorporation of rehabilitation enables access to healthcare facilities. It also differentiates between peddlers and customers, which helps to segregate vulnerable users.
So far, there has been no study that links sole cannabis use with overdose mortality. But, be it legal or illegal, overuse of any substance will lead to severe health conditions, thereby requiring medical help.

*Names are changed to protect identity

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