The association of cannabis with crimes is an import from the United States.
There are only a few things in India that enjoy religious and cultural sanctions as much as the use of cannabis does. And yet, its consumption is illegal.
If the mainstream rhetoric around the alleged death by suicide of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajputis anything to go by, cannabis – or its resin (hash) and flowers (weed) – is the epitome of evil. The only paradox is that until 35 years ago, this view of the indigenous plant and its psychotropic by-products was not viewed as a crime. And Indians have been smoking up for thousands of years before that.
The association of cannabis with crimes, and by extension social stigma, is actually an import from the United States. Though India opposed the classification of cannabis alongside hard drugs during the 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs, it eventually buckled under the pressure in 1985.
“This was the Cold War era, and India needed the US as an ally and access to American technology,” explains Kartik Ganapathy, senior and founding partner, IndusLaw.
India enacted the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act in 1985, effectively criminalising the use of the fruit and flower of cannabis, but excluding the leaves. The leaves, which Indian grind on a mortar and pestle to make a paste called bhaang, have deep connections with the Hindu religion, especially the cult of Shiva, the god of destruction.
Commonly used as an ingredient in cool drinks and sweets during the festivals of Holi and Shivratri, the sale and consumption of bhaang are permitted under the Indian law.
But consuming other parts of the same cannabis plant can invite a penalty of up to Rs 10,000 ($135) and a year in prison. “The US confused the debate around cannabis,” Ganapathy says. “It likened something like cannabis, proven to be medically beneficial for many people, to the ilk of drugs controlled by drug lords.”
That is not to say India does not consume weed or hash.
What Is Bhang?
Even if you consider yourself a cannabis connoisseur, you may have never heard of a marijuana-infused drink called bhang. It’s a spicy concoction that has been consumed across the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years, but the important role it plays in these cultures makes it much more than simply an intoxicating drink.
Bhang is Made of Cannabis
India is a land of cultures and traditions. The consumption of bhang is one of them. Dating back to around 2,000 BC, bhang has become a fundamental part of Indian culture. It is made by infusing the flowers, leaves, and stems of cannabis plants into a dairy product, like a yogurt or milk, and mixing in herbs, spices, honey, nuts, almonds, pistachio, rose petals, black pepper, and cloves, depending on one’s recipe. The heating of cannabis during the preparation of drinks leads to the formation of additional Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which is responsible for a euphoric high. A popular drink in Bangladesh and India, Bhang ki Thandai is made with milk and cannabis paste. It is generally consumed for the annual festival of Shiva. The preparation of thandai is a culture in itself and has great significance. Throughout Southeast Asia, you can find the different variations of the bhang drink (or sometimes a yogurt or gelatin solid) that locals make such as jalebis, kulfis, thandai, and pakora.
Bhang is Traditionally Associated with Lord Shiva
Cannabis has a long-held reputation in India for its religious and spiritual implications, particularly in Hinduism. According to the Hindu religion, cannabis is so loved by Lord Shiva, principal deity of transformation, that he is known as the “Lord of Bhang” by his followers. It is believed that Shiva used bhang to focus inward and to harness his divine powers for the good of the world. Often portrayed as the supreme ascetic with a passive and composed disposition, Lord Shiva is fed with opium in order to numb his negative potentials. His devotees follow his example of using bhang to calm the mind for meditation, purify the body, and cleanse the soul of sins, especially during the festivals Holi (Festival of Colors), Janmashtami (Birth of Krishna), and Maha Shivaratri (The Great Night of Shiva). Indian devotees drink bhang in an attempt to mimic the path to salvation. It is considered holy to use bhang to facilitate communication with the divine, but foolish and sinful to consume it mindlessly.
Bhang is the Official Holi Drink
One of the most important festivals in India, Holi marks the coming of Spring, after the harvest has been completed. It is celebrated by throwing colored powder or water at each other, resulting in exuberant expression of joy, playfulness, and camaraderie. Originated in the North of India, bhang has become synonymous with Holi to such an extent that it is recognized as the official Holi drink in many parts of India. Culled from the leaves and buds of Cannabis, the intoxicating bhang helps to escalate the spirit of Holi. During this festival, bhang is usually prepared in the traditional way. Using a pestle and mortar, the fresh leaves and flowers are pounded to a thick green paste, which is then added to milk and yogurt. The paste is also used to make bhang halva (sweet confection) by adding ghee and sugar. According to sources, sales of bhang go up more than four times the average around Holi.
Weed is everywhere
By the government’s own estimates, 31 million people in India – about 2.8% of its population – have reported having used some form of cannabis in 2018. A study by Seedo, an Israel-based firm that sells devices to grow weed at home, reported Delhi alone consuming 32.38 metric tons of cannabis in 2018. “It estimated that around Rs 725 crore could be raised in Delhi if cannabis is taxed,” says an August 20 report by legal think tank Vidhi Legal on decriminalising cannabis.
The plant also grows, well, like a weed, especially in the Himalayan states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. It is ubiquitous, a part of local cultures across the country, almost as if existing in a parallel universe.
India, thus, loses out on a vast market of cannabis-related products – especially timber, textile and medication. “This plant is hardy and cheap to grow,” Ganapathy says. “It is eco-friendly, and has the immense potential to help the textile and agriculture sector in India.” Currently, only a handful of companies such as Boheco (Bombay Hemp Company) and Hemp & Co are using hemp, the non-psychoactive variants of the cannabis plant, for creating wellness products. And even these need special licenses.
Ganapathy is one among the chorus of voices pointing out the opportunities lost to criminalised cannabis. Indian parliamentarians such as Tathagata Satpathy and Maneka Gandhi have often raised this issue, and a private member bill by former MP Dharamvir Gandhi to legalise marijuana was also introduced in parliament in 2017. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor has also been vocal about his support for legalising marijuana.
Meanwhile, the US has come a full circle and legalised cannabis in several states. “The US has actually come around and it is doing what it does best by being preeminently capitalistic,” Ganapathy says. “India knew this market potential, but we allowed ourselves to get into this trap.”
The fear now is that the current rhetoric around an actor’s alleged weed consumption, shown in the light of a ghastly addiction, could be a setback for the legalisation debate in India. “Fixating on it as a drug denies all other benefits of cannabis,” Ganapathy says.