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Cannabis: What is it, why is it banned in India and how Rajiv Gandhi played a role in its ban

Though the government has the provision of licensing personnel to cultivate cannabis since 1985, the first license was given in 2018

Cannabis is a drug derived from Indian hemp plants such as cannabis sativa and cannabis indica. The main active chemical in cannabis is THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol). It is a depressant drug and slows down the activity of the central nervous system. High dosages of cannabis may have hallucinogenic effects. It is commonly known as weed, pot, joint, dope, herb, grass, among other names.

The use of cannabis dates back to thousands of years. Sharda N Bapat mentioned in her paper “Cannabis: the forgotten sacred plant of India” that the British Government of India prohibited the consumption of cannabis resin (charas) in India in the 1930s that led to the beginning of the decline in cultivation and usage of cannabis sativa in India. While Atharvaveda mentioned cannabis as one of the five sacred plants, Ayurveda has mentioned its medicinal value.

It can be used as a source of food, fiber, oil, medicine, and recreational and spiritual purposes. Despite its multiple commercial and personal uses, the plant found its way in the list of items banned under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985. Let’s explore the role of international pressure and Rajiv Gandhi led government in its ban in India.

The ban in the US

The roots of the cannabis ban in India has its roots in the US. One might have noticed how states in the United States of America are now legalizing cannabis for recreational and medicinal purposes; the case was not different around 60 years ago. In the 1960s, America ran a campaign to impose a ban on cannabis. Under Article 28 of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, at the United Nations, cannabis was put under the list of substances to be highly regulated by the signatory state. As per the decisions made during the convention, only licensed personnel can cultivate or deal in the Cannabis plant.

Though the reason behind the ban was listed as to control the use of drugs and the involvement of organized crime in the cultivation and distribution of narcotics, it is believed that one of the reasons behind the ban was the possible industrial applications of the plant. Cannabis and its variants like hemp can grow in harsh conditions at a very rapid rate. Different parts of the plant can be used in making fabric, medicines, fodder, and other products. Some experts believe that as the plant was cheap to produce, it was not easy to sell products made out of it at a higher price making it less profitable for corporate.

India ban under Rajiv Gandhi

India was not a signatory member of the 1961 treaty between nations to ban narcotics, including cannabis. However, under the immense pressure of the United States, Rajiv Gandhi led government had passed the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act in 1985. Under the law, the government banned charas (separated resin, crude or refined), hashish (a purified form of charas), ganja (flowering or fruiting top of the cannabis plant), and any mixture with or without any natural mixture.

Under the law, the state governments got the power to permit, control, and regulate the cultivation of cannabis plants along with production, manufacture, possession, transport, inter-state import and export of the plant and its derivatives. Only the state government and its authorized personnel are allowed to cultivate the plant.

If someone is found in possession of cannabis in India, he or she can be punished for up to one year with a provision of a fine up to Rs.10,000 or both. If someone is found involved in the illegal trade of the plant, he or she can be jailed for up to ten years or fine of Rs.1,00,000 or both.

Legal cultivation of hemp in India

Interestingly, though the government has the provision of licensing personnel to cultivate cannabis since 1985, the first license was given in 2018. Indian Industrial Hemp Association got the first license to cultivate hemp. In an interview, the founder-president of IIHA said, “We will commence cultivation of non-narcotic hemp soon with the initial focus on creating a seed bank. The cultivation will be taken up in villages in the Pauri Garhwal region.” They got permission to cultivate hemp in Uttarakhand over 1,000 hectares, on a pilot basis. At present, the company sells fibre made out of the hemp plant.

How Bhang is allowed, but marijuana is not under the law

As per the Magnitude Of Substance Use In India 2019 report, about 2.8 percent of India’s population have used some form of cannabis in 2018. There is a loophole in the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act in 1985 that it only bans the usage of buds and resins. It is believed that the government intentionally kept this loophole to leave bhang, which is made out of leaves, out of the coverage under the law that would have prohibited its use even for religious purposes. The leaves of the cannabis plant contain a lesser concentration of active ingredients making it less potent in nature.

Although bhang is not banned, the law prohibits anyone from cultivating it for commercial purposes. Though bhang is not covered under the NDPS Act, it does fall under the definition of a cannabis plant, making it a punishable act to cultivate the plant without permission from the government.

Countries that have legalized cannabis

Canada: In October 2018, Canada legalized the medicinal use of cannabis under the Cannabis Act. Anyone living in Canada who is above 18 years of age can keep or share up to 30 grams of cannabis in dry or non-dry form.

Uruguay: It was the first country to legalize cannabis in 2013 for recreational use. Buyers need to register to buy marijuana for recreational purposes. They can buy up to 10 grams of marijuana from authorized pharmacies.

North Korea: Though the country keeps everything secret, still there are rumors that it is legal to grow cannabis in North Korea.

Several states in the US: States including Illinois, Washington State, Oregon, Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, California, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, and Alaska, have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Other states may follow the suite sooner or later as per the experts.

Netherlands: Cannabis can be sold in licensed coffeeshops.

Medicinal use of marijuana: Countries including Argentina, Australia, Barbados, Bermuda, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador and Finland have legalized the medicinal use of marijuana.

Possible legalization in India

In January 2018, the Prime Minister Office asked the health ministry to check the benefits of cannabis. The letter from PMO stated, “A reply indicating the decision/action taken on the submission of the petitioner may invariably be sent to the petitioner at the earliest, preferably a month. In case it is not possible to take an action or decision on the matter, an interim reply indicating the reason be sent to the PMO and petitioner.”

Later in the same year, the state of Uttarakhand allowed the cultivation of hemp. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor also talked in favour of legalizing cannabis in India. In March 2020, Prasenjit Chakraborty, a BJP leader from Tripura, requested PM to consider legalizing cannabis in India. However, the recent case of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death has unearthed several instances where celebrities of the Indian film industry were involved in drug abuse. It is believed that the case will push back efforts of legalizing cannabis in India for some time. Also, recent studies have revealed how Pakistan is involved in narco-terrorism in India. It is one of the reasons the government may not consider legalizing cannabis any time soon.

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