The consumption and possession of narcotic drugs has been under public lens in India in the wake of high-profile arrests in recent times. It has once again brought into the limelight an issue often buried 6 feet under. Measures to legalise drugs that have been traditionally consumed in India for centuries , sometimes and are largely acceptable in moderation have not led to much domestic action. it is interesting to note though that in the United Nations, 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. This was in 2020. However, no follow up measure to amend the draconian Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS) of 1985 has happened thus far and possession or consumption of even the mildest narcotic can lead to severe punishments.
In 2012, Uruguay became the first country to legalise the use of cannabis for recreational purposes. This move aimed to replace links between organised crime and the cannabis trade with more accountable state regulation. Later in the same year, voters voted to make cannabis legal in Washington, and Colorado became the first state in the United States to act upon the same. Under Barack Obama’s leadership, 33 out of 50 US states legalised the medical use of cannabis. The neighbouring country of Canada legalised the recreational use of Marijuana, whereas the medical use of the same was legal since 2001.
The question at hand is why is india not legalising the use of cannabis? Bhang and Opium are known and used in India for centuries and no stigma of addiction was ever traditionally attached to it. It is improper to bracket and paint all narcotic drugs with the same brush, especially naturally occurring plant based products. Nearly 147 million people, which account for 2.5 per cent of the world’s population, use cannabis for recreational purposes,
As has been pointed out, like along with most ancient civilisations, india has a long tryst with drugs , not just for recreational purposes but also to enhance meditative practices, spiritual pursuits and attain mystical states. The connection between locally available mild narcotics and Sadhus as well as Sufi fakirs is too well documented to be elaborated here. For instance , consumption of Bhang pakoras and thandai laced with Bhang is almost a ritual, even a necessary practice in the observance certain festivals like Holi. The connection. Between Bhang and Holi has been immortalised in countless Bollywood songs. Bhang also plays an important role in celebrations like Shivrati . During these times, the addition of bhang is supposed to heightens the general sense of merriment on the day.
A distinction surely must be drawn though between “ soft” drugs which are like Ganja and Bhang and the refined products like Cocaine, Heroin, Charas which may have plant origins but are effectively man made. Then of course there are purely synthetic drugs like Ecstasy and LSD and other newer ones.
Although the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1985 prohibits the production, sale and consumption of certain parts of the cannabis plant, the leaves are an exception as a token gesture to tradition. There are even government-approved bhang shops in towns like Jaisalmer and Pushkar, and more than 200 such shops exist year-round in Varanasi. The intoxicating ingredient has always been popular among those who are traditionally forbidden from imbibing inebriants like alcohol. In some especially religious parts of the country, it is common to see babas and sadhus (holy men) consuming bhang directly or smoking it from a clay pipe known as a chillum.
The former Patiala MP Dr Dharamvira Gandhi has been long attempting to seek legalisation of the “non-synthetic” intoxicants. He has been lobbying for long to have the the NDPS Act amended to provide relief to common drug user through cheap, regulated and medically supervised supply of traditional and natural intoxicants. Part of the reason that the battle against illicit drugs has never been won in Punjab and elsewhere is that all drugs are painted with the same brush and viewed as equally dangerous and addictive when that is clearly not the case. It would be a lot more prudent to use scarce human and financial resources to focus on the semi synthetic and synthetic drugs which are lethal. The NDPS Act has failed in achieving its professed goals. Anyone found using or possessing any banned substances is prescribed a harsh punishment, and large amounts of money are invested in the enforcement of this law at the tail end.
As the common man’s recreational substances were made unavailable, the newer, more potent, addictive and dangerous alternative drugs flooded the markets. Heroin replaced opium, cocaine replaced cannabis, and so on. As the drug business involves huge super profits, on one hand it creates rivalries spilling into gang wars and on the other hand it promotes ruthless and aggressive marketing, thus pushing more and more people into the drug world. Consequently, the petty traditional drug users are turning to the easily available and aggressively marketed more addictive and dangerous street drugs.
A study by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy in 2018 said that most arrests in drugs cases in India are for personal consumption. The study showed 81,778 people in India were charged under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act in 2018. Of these, 59 per cent were arrested for possession for personal use. The arrest of the consumer when drug lords and cartels go free is a case of misplaced priorities. The same study also looked at the magistrates courts in Mumbai, where it found 10,669 cases. Of these cases, 99.9 per cent were for personal consumption, and 87 per cent of the total involved cannabis and not hard drugs like cocaine, heroin or smack.
According to a 2019 study, National Survey on Extent and Pattern of Substance Abuse in India, by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, around three crore people are cannabis users in India. Jailing these three crore people will completely break the legal system. The debate surrounding decriminalising cannabis needs to start strongly in India due to the large number of users as well as its easy availability. Government data also suggests that eight lakh people are injecting drugs. Focusing attention on these people who are injecting drugs will be a much better use of the NDPS law. The late Nani Palkhivala used to say that in India, the “moment there is a problem we come up with a law”, thinking that it will make the problem go away. By now we know it doesn’t. It makes sense to have smarter and fewer laws and better use of these laws.
Dr Shantanu Dutta , a former Air Force doctor is now serving in the NGO sector for the last few decades.