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Is Weed Legal in India? A Look at India’s Tryst with Cannabis and When it Was Banned

Was weed always illegal in India? Not until 1985 | Image for representation | Credit: Reuters

In India, marijuana has been in use for millennia in various forms including ganja, bhang, hashish and other variants. Its oldest known usage and mention goes as far back as 2000 BCE.

  • News18.com
  • Last Updated: September 08, 2020, 17:58 IST
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Buzz Staff

On Tuesday, actor Rhea Chakraborty was arrested by NCB under various sections of the NDPS.

The untimely and tragic death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput has opened a Pandora’s box in the film industry. What first started as a debate against nepotism and outsider bias has now conflagrated into a raging debate on drug usage in the industry.

The Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) has been investigating the possible role of drugs in the SSR death case following allegations against actor and Rajput’s reported girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty giving him drugs such as marijuana, which is an illegal substance in India.

The incident, however, has led to debate regarding the legality of substances like the cannabis plant and its byproducts including weed, hashish, hemp oil and other items, with many wondering why weed was categorized at the same level of danger as other “hard” narcotic drugs.

So, is weed legal in India?

The answer is, no. It isn’t. But did you know that up until 1984, wee was actually legal in India?

In India, marijuana has been in use for millennia in various forms including ganja, bhang, hashish and other variants. Its oldest known usage and mention goes as far back as 2000 BCE.

Bhanga has been mentioned in texts dating back to 1000 BCE and also in the Vedas. The Atharva Veda names bhang as one of five special plants that can relieve anxiety. The Sushruta Samhita also mentions it as a medicinal plant.

When the Portuguese and British came to India, they also found a thriving cannabis trade and consumption pattern in India. The British even taxed it and were perhaps the first to pass laws in connection to the usage of marijuana. It was also in British India that calls for criminalising cannabis were first raised in 1838, 1871, and 1877 consecutively. But ganja continued to enjoy lagality.

When was weed criminalised?

The world’s outlook toward weed changed after the international treaty ‘Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs’ – influenced by the American outlook on the usage and harmful effects of marijuana – categorized weed along with other harmful, hard drugs. Passed in 1961, it required nations to classify marijuana as a dangerous drug.

India cited the treaty’s intolerance of bhang’s social and religious relevance in India and negotiated that while it would ban cannabis (ganja or the flowering buds of the cannabis plant) but not its byproducts meaning Bhang (leaves and seeds of the cannabis plant excluding the. top). It also received a 25-year-period to internally regulate the usage of recreational drugs.

In 1985, India passed the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act in 1985 which continued to criminalise cannabis in the form of buds or resin (charas) while allowing the sale of bhang – a byproduct of cannabis that is still heavily consumed on festivals like Holi and Shivratri. The sale and regulation of the latter were left up to states to decide.

Thus, India’s laws against weed seem largely to be based on a treaty that has since become null. Several states with the United States have already legalised the use of recreational and medicinal marijuana, giving it a quasi-legal status (sale of weed is still a federal crime).

While calls for legalising weed have gained momentum over the past few decades in India, the death of Sushant Singh Rajput and the consequent media trial of Rhea Chakraborty based on their alleged consumption of weed has once again raised questions about the criminal status of weed. Critics claim that the weed ban is not only detrimental to mental health but also a source of revenue loss for the Indian economy. According to a Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment study, nearly 2.83% Indians aged 10–75 years who consume marijuana. That’s 31 million people.

The NCB, meanwhile, has registered a case against Rhea, her brother Showik, talent manager Jaya Saha, Shruti Modi, and Goa-based hotelier Gaurav Arya under Sections 20 (b), 28, and 29 of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act.

In India, marijuana has been in use for millennia in various forms including ganja, bhang, hashish and other variants. Its oldest known usage and mention goes as far back as 2000 BCE.

Will India legalise cannabis after UN vote?

The UN Commission on Narcotic Drug has voted to reclassify cannabis recognising it a narcotic that is not dangerous. India voted in favour of the decision. Will India now legalise cannabis in the country?

Cannabis, also known loosely as hemp, marijuana or pot, may be on its way to being reclassified in India. Cannabis transaction is largely illegal and strictly controlled in India. But now, the United Nations has decided to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from the list of dangerous narcotic substances. And, India voted in favour of the decision.

Regulation of cannabis and its products has been under public lens in India in the wake of high-profile arrests including that of actor Rhea Chakraborty in recent times. There have been demands to legalise cannabis in India.

The decision was taken by the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (UNCND) by a majority voting. India was among the 27 countries that voted for removal of cannabis and cannabis resin from the list of prohibited substances. This decision flowed from a series of recommendations made by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on marijuana and its derivatives.

WHAT UN’S CANNABIS DECISION MEAN?

“The CND zeroed-in on the decision to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs— where it was listed alongside deadly, addictive opioids, including heroin,” the UN said in a statement.

Cannabis was on the CND’s prohibited list for nearly 60 years warranting strict control on its production, supply, consumption and even use for medical purposes.

The UN said the decision has “opened the door to recognise the medicinal and therapeutic potential of the commonly-used but still largely illegal recreational drug”.

An important emphasis of the UN was that the reclassification of cannabis could “act as catalyst for countries to legalize the drug for medicinal use, and reconsider laws on its recreational use”.

It was the recreational aspect of cannabis and its derivatives that came under investigation of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), which earlier charged Rhea Chakraborty, her brother Showik and several others in a case of illegal use of narcotics. Rhea was charged with possessing curated marijuana.

CANNABIS: ILLEGAL YET LEGAL

Cannabis and its derivatives are banned in India under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act of 1985. Cannabis is a generic name, according to the WHO, for a range of preparations of the Cannabis sativa plant. Marijuana, a Mexican word, is a frequently used name for products made from Cannabis’s leaves or other parts.

The NDPS Act strictly regulates cannabis plant and its products. Charas is separately mentioned as regulated substance under the law. Charas is resin extracted from the cannabis plant. Hashish or hash is another name for charas. Cannabis oil or hashish oil is also regulated in India.

The NDPS Act describes another cannabis product, ganja, separately. Ganja is derived from the flowering or fruiting part of the cannabis plant. It is this formation that is commonly referred to as “weed” or marijuana.

The law does not ban use if seeds and leaves of the cannabis plant if these are not mixed with other parts of the vegetation. This is why bhang, commonly consumed by people in northern and eastern parts of India during Holi festival, is not illegal to consume. Similarly, chutney made from cannabis seeds and popular in the Himalayan regions particularly Uttarakhand is not banned.

This was a defence given by Rhea Chakraborty’s lawyer during the bail hearing. The NCB in its probe had found WhatsApp chats about CBD oil, which is apparently different from the cannabis oil as it is derived from the leaves.

HISTORY OF CANNABIS REGULATION IN INDIA

Cannabis has a long history in India. Its oldest origin is not known in the world but what is certain is that around 3,000 BC, cannabis was consumed by people in some form. In India, evidence from 1,000 BC onward supports its use by people here. It has been used in India and elsewhere for both medicinal and recreational purposes. Its association with Lord Shiva is part of Indian folklore.

Regulation of cannabis or its bhang form began with the British becoming a colonial power in India. The British Parliament enacted a law to tax bhang, ganja and charas on the pretext of the “good health and sanity” of the “natives”. But the British did not criminalise its use.

Criminalisation of cannabis in various forms happened after 1961 convention of the UNCND that placed the plant and its derivatives on Schedule IV. India had opposed the move against cannabis citing its social and religious link to consumption of cannabis. But later on, when the 1961 convention found its expression in India’s NDPS Act, cannabis became highly regulated. India, however, kept bhang out of its purview.

WHAT NOW?

There is another common thread. That the US had canvassed strongly in 1961 for strict regulation of cannabis as it criminalised its usage. Now, several US states have decriminalised cannabis and there is growing public opinion for de-criminalising cannabis, the US has favoured the plant being taken off the strict control schedule. India voted for the resolution to reclassify cannabis at the UN.

The UN decision to reclassify cannabis, however, would not immediately change the way it is being regulated by countries across the world. Still, it is expected that the UNCND decision would lead to an international protocol to legalise cannabis.

Many being arrested or investigated by the NCB in connection with possession or suspicion of possession of cannabis or its derivatives may rue that the decision of the UN agency came a little late for them.

The UN Commission on Narcotic Drug has voted to reclassify cannabis recognising it a narcotic that is not dangerous. India voted in favour of the decision. Will India now legalise cannabis in the country?