High hopes: Who are the people who want marijuana legalised in India?
There is a joint effort in place.
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Most Indians who grew up watching Bollywood movies in the '90s were introduced to two very specific ideas: One, drugs made you do bad things; and two, all drugs are just white powder in transparent packets. Of course, by the time they reached their late-teens and early-tweens, a section of these young Indians realised that while both the ideas, or lessons, may have some truth to them, they are far from the truths about intoxication.
An introduction to cannabis, sometimes taken under the unnecessary excuse of “Shivji ka prasad (Lord Shiva’s offering)” and sometimes consumed to let loose one’s creative juices is a rite of passage for thousands of college-going Indians. But one thing that is crystal clear to all and confounding to many is the question of such consumption’s legality – why is a seemingly harmless narcotic, that mostly makes you look vacant, hungry and laugh a little too much, considered an illegal substance, not just in India, but around the world?
On January 21, a few dozen placard-holding youngsters gathered in Delhi’s Connaught Place asked this very question. "If the government can allow sale of tobacco and alcohol, why has it banned marijuana? Unlike the former two, marijuana has known properties to heal and even prevent diseases," stated Utsav Thapliyal, a student of Amity University, who along with others there is part of the Delhi chapter of Greater Legalisation Movement India, a non-profit organisation educating about the benefits of cannabis.
The demonstration in Connaught Place was one of many that different chapters of GLM have planned across the country.
Who are they
According to their website, “the Great Legalisation Movement - India, is a collective movement in the society which sees through the corruption involved with this prohibition and also envisions a bright future for humanity and the planet by using this plant exclusively. GLM-India will strive to educate the masses, reformatting the health system, reintroducing thousands of products made from hemp, creating a sustainable model of hemp economy and putting all of it into action.”
GLM, aside from organising a number of events around the country, educating people about the advantages of cannabis, the “draconian” laws the make it illegal and creating a documentary series titled The Gaanja Situation, has also written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking him to consider legalising the recreationally-used psychotropic drug.
Viki Vaurora, a 25-year-old GLM activist, speaking to The Hindu in 2016, said: “The plant was written about in the Atharvaveda, which is about 3,500 years old. Besides, in north India, there are paan (betel leaves) shops that prepare bhang (an edible preparation of marijuana leaves) and openly sell it. But if one wants to grow the plant for medicinal use, then it becomes a crime?”
“I call [the ban] a big, organised lobby crime,” he added, speaking about the classification of this “harmless” drug with the likes of MDMA, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines.
The history of marijuana legalisation in India
Marijuana was, according to many sources, a perfectly acceptable substance in India. It finds mention in ancient texts and its use was well observed by colonial rulers – the Portuguese and the British. In fact, the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission in 1894 called it the “penicillin of Ayurvedic medicine”.
Internationally as well, marijuana was not really considered harmful till the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1961, "Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs", a United Nations convention that aimed to combat drug abuse by coordinated international action, was the first international treaty to club cannabis with other chemical narcotic substances and imposed a blanket ban on its production and supply except for medicinal and research purposes.
According to a report in The Times of India, the US - in its relentless campaigning since the convention - put pressure on many of its global allies for reforms in drug laws. In 1985, the Rajiv Gandhi government buckled under pressure and enacted a law called the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act.
The NDPS Act, however, provides for some loopholes. According to the act, cannabis was defined as charas (the resin extracted from the plant), ganja (the flowering or fruiting tops of the plant) and any mixture or drink prepared from either of the two permitted forms of marijuana.
The NDPS Act, thus, allows people to smoke marijuana or drink bhang, as long as they can prove that they had consumed only the leaves and seeds of the cannabis plant.
Political support for legalisation
In 2017, Union women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi suggested legalising marijuana for medical purposes in India, citing the examples of several countries that have, over the years, re-legalised the psychotropic substance. She isn’t the only one. Patiala MP Dr Dharamvir Gandhi has petitioned to legalise the possession as well as consumption of marijuana in India.
In fact, in 2017, Gandhi moved a private member’s bill to legalise the recreational use of marijuana, a bill that was supported by BJP MP Vinod Khanna as well as Tathagata Satpathy, a Biju Janata Dal (BJD) MP from Odisha.
Sathpathy, as an MP, has been vocal about the legalisation of marijuana for some time now. Besides having admitted to have recreationally used cannabis in college during a Reddit AMA a few years ago, Sathpathy also famously called the criminalisation of cannabis elitist.
"The thinking is that if you hold a wine glass people will consider you belong to the upper class. You roll a joint and people will call you ‘charsi’. It is an elitist bias. It was during Rajiv Gandhi's time that the Indian state was most elitist. A pilot married to a foreigner and forced into something he was not interested in. Indira Gandhi was not elitist in that manner. Cannabis suffered a ban because it was an intoxicant of the poor,” he said.
Will the laws ever change?
It is hard to say if the likes of Sathpathy, two Gandhis (Maneka and Dharamvir) and a group of youngsters will ever manage to muster enough political capital to bring about any real reform. But there is always hope. In Dharamvir Gandhi’s private members’ bill, he suggests changes to the NDPS Act, particularly one that puts an end to the clubbing of marijuana with drugs like cocaine, heroin and smack.
It is a move that is also supported by former commissioner of the Central Bureau of Narcotics, Romesh Bhattacharji.
"This is a good move, and this needs to be debated in the face of such stiff ignorance which often takes root in the moral high grounds people take after being influenced by the UN conventions. This law has been victimising people since 1985," Bhattacharji said to News18, adding that in a survey he had conducted in Punjab from 2001 to 2011, the data showed that around 25,003 were behind bars under the NDPS Act.
Out of that only 10 to 60 people were drug-traffickers and the rest were the poor charged with offences of possessing soft drugs.