Legalisation of Marijuana In India

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Just about everybody smokes marijuana in India. Hush, not a word to anybody. We will all be arrested. It’s a democratic, egalitarian weed loved by copywriters, doctors, designers, salesmen, delivery boys, auto-rickshaw drivers, cycle-rickshaw pullers, NGO employees, journalists, chauffeurs, housewives, house husbands, army men, policemen, schoolteachers, college professors, train TTs, corporate slaves and honchos, politicians and, of course, musicians.

There are places famous for it: Kerala, Meghalaya, Manipur, Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Mysuru, even Bihar. It’s illegal and yet its use is widespread. In Odisha, it is relatively more acceptable and easier to procure. In Varanasi, at a fancy lit fest that I was invited to, bhang balls were served to delegates on a silver platter. It was part of tradition and local hospitality, the law be damned. Smoking culture has evolved in India. 

There was a time in the 1980s and ’90s when users would empty out cigarettes, fill them, smoke them. Then came carpet-thick Capstan cigarette papers and people learnt to roll (unbleached brown paper is all the rage now). In the last decade, pot smoking in India reached the tipping point. It’s a sign of how pervasive and popular it is that king-size rolling paper is now available at almost every cigarette and paan shack, in every nook and cranny of the country.

Remember that India is a cost-conscious society, a sachet economy: one can buy cigarette papers loose for five rupees a pop. Remember, also, that we are close to China. The moment China realised that demand was booming in India, it flooded the market with cheap counterfeits of established brands, like OCB. If you see someone outside a cigarette shop in Delhi, holding a leaf of paper against the light, then this is what she is doing: she is checking for the watermark of authenticity, like one would with a currency note.

And for those too lazy to learn to roll, an Indian company called Bongchie — seeing a gap in the market — has launched “pre-rolled cones”. This, too, is now available at the smallest of grocery and kirana stores.

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In status-conscious Delhi, smoking expensive hashish has become a form of conspicuous consumption, much like the iPhone X. It’s the contemporary equivalent of what the single malt used to be.

Someone will ostentatiously pull out his tola of hash at a party. Everyone is offered the chance to smell it: “Yeah, man, mango smell.”

When the joint is passed around, friends realise that the roll-up is primarily tobacco with very little hash in it. Hashish is so expensive that the owner of the piece doesn’t really want to smoke it; he carries it from party to party for snob value. An acquaintance of mine has been carrying the same piece for a year now.

Meanwhile, smoking a joint has become as socially acceptable as having a beer.

Smoking Up

This is the story so far in India. What about the rest of the world? Think of the cannabis industry as a sleeping giant, gently waking from its slumber. It has all the makings of a good fairy tale.

This September, South Africa became the latest country to legalise recreational use for personal consumption. Canada follows suit on October 17.

September was a good month for marijuana in general. Ahead of the impending legalisation, Canadian medical cannabis company Tilray’s stocks saw, at one point, an astounding 90% intraday gain, before settling at more reasonable levels after a day of volatile trading. Other pot stocks, as they are now called, also saw an upwards trend.

Canopy Growth’s share price i s 300% of what it was a year ago, while Canada-based Aurora Cannabis is looking at a US listing.

Aurora Cannabis’ shares were also up in September following news that it was in talks with Coca-Cola to launch cannabis-infused drinks. In a statement issued to the press, Coca-Cola said: “Along with many others in the beverage industry, we are closely watching the growth of non-psychoactive cannabidiol as an ingredient in functional wellness beverages around the world.”

Canopy Growth was in the news in August when it was announced that Corona beer owner Constellation Brands would pour another $4 billion (in addition to $200 million last year) into the company. The two issued a joint statement that they can “now expand into at least 30 countries pursuing a federally permissible medical cannabis programme”.

ABC of Weed

To understand what is going on, we need to distinguish between two elements found in marijuana plants: THC and CBD. To put it simply: CBD gives one the benefits of marijuana, without the high, whereas THC stands for the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, which will give you a buzz.

The companies invested in marijuana have different foci. Coca-Cola is more interested in the CBD part of it, which eases inflammation and reduces pain. The aim is not to intoxicate. Heineken via Lagunitas (as also Corona) is dabbling in both. Its beverage Hi-Fi Hops comes in two versions: one with 10 mg THC and the other with 5 mg of THC and 5 mg of CBD.

As an aside, it’s interesting to note these cycles of “drug” culture where certain substances fall in and out of legal and societal favour. Coca-Cola, when it started out in the late 19th century, was reported to contain a dash of cocaine extracted from coca leaves.

This was phased out a century ago. The company has always denied this, even as its original formula continues to remain a secret. There is also a third element in addition to CBD and THC — cannabis sativa seed oil or hempseed oil. According to Quartz, it has many “health-promoting compounds”, and, like CBD, is nonintoxicating.

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The benefits of marijuana are many. It’s a sleep aid, appetite enhancer, anxiety and pain reliever. It has brought immense relief to the terminally ill. It’s also a muscle relaxant, aiding and speeding recovery from bodybreaking fevers like chikungunya. (I can vouch for this from experience.) And as more legal research is done into it, more medically proven benefits are bound to surface. Bharat was always aware of it. Our sadhus and gods smoked it. No Mahashivratri is complete without a good chillum; no Holi without a good bhang thandai.

Both the major strains of the marijuana plant — sativa and indica — are native to India. During the monsoon, the plant grows wild in gardens and campuses.

In 1985, under pressure from the US (which had launched the war on drugs with much fanfare), Rajiv Gandhi clamped the draconian NDPS — the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. This put traditional bhang and ganja on the same level as smack, brown sugar etc.

As always in India, once a ban is put in place, it stays in place. There is no rolling back, even as the countries originally responsible for these bans evolve, revoke and move forward. (The war on drugs, meanwhile, after squandering billions of dollars and taking hundreds of thousands of lives, is widely considered a failure.)

This happened with Section 377 and homosexuality. England had moved on, while we clung to it. The same goes for the ban on marijuana. As America (and the world) adapts to changing times and steams ahead with innovations in the cannabis industry, the Indian ostrich still has its head stuck in American sand.

This April, the Uttarakhand government belatedly gave permission to cultivate nonnarcotic hemp — a plan mooted first in 1985, then shelved. This allows India to participate partially in a global $1 trillion industry, of which Europe, America and China have long been a part of. But all we can do is make fibre. The seeds and flowers remain illegal; so does hempseed oil.

What’s happening is this: while the world, from Coca-Cola to Corona, appropriates our tropical plant and basically reinvents bhang, making billions in the process, we have no political, moral and judicial stand on it. We have given up all claims on what was our own for millennia. Instead, we have decided to channel our energies into cow dung soap and cow urine shampoo, now available on Amazon, but unlikely to spawn a global market like Cannabis indica. Looks like the sleeping giant will continue to sleep, at least in India, the land of its birth.