Updated: Feb 16
There is a rich history of cannabis in India and most recently, has given rise to various start-up plans and organizations. The Great Legalization Movement India, a non-profit organization which is working towards legalizing the use of cannabis for medicinal and industrial purpose have filed a petition in Delhi High Court to decriminalize the use of cannabis. In the said petition they have challenged particular provisions of the central law, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substance (NDPS) Act, 1985, which governs the use of such drugs and have alleged that the prohibition and criminalization of use of cannabis is violative of constitutional provisions.
The present article envisages to examine the legality of use of cannabis vis-a-vis regulatory framework related to it. It makes an effort to discuss the law relating to regulation of cannabis in India and scope of commercialization. Furthermore, it tries to make several compelling arguments on whether or not cannabis should be made legal so that the commercialization is possible. While conducting the research on the subject-matter, the researcher has carefully referred various scholarly articles from reputed journals to maintain the authenticity of the arguments and counter arguments made herein.
Cannabis in India: Historical Background and Legality
The use of variants of cannabis such as bhaang, charas, ganja, etc. can be predated to Vedic period and has witnessed its presence in various ancient literatures. These texts mention bhaang as stress and pain-relieving element, used in curing wounds. Deity such as Lord Shiva is often associated with consumption of bhaang which is offered during the festival of Mahashivratri and Holi.
Several state provinces of contemporary India were involved in cultivation of cannabis plant. Citizens belonging to states like Uttar Pradesh, Orrisa, Bihar and West Bengal are engaged in use of seeds and leaves to make bhaang and chillum. Since, the central law regulating use of cannabis, i.e., the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, Act provides a definition of cannabis wherein it excludes the seeds and leaves, bhang is legal, although subjected to the state laws governing its use.
Medicinal research - The ‘High’ or ‘Hit’ compound
Cannabis contains medicinal elements/compounds and is believed to have a sedative effect on ailing human body. People suffering from diseases such as cancer, epilepsy, autism, etc. can lower their suffering or pain by the sedative effect of cannabis, as it reacts with the human body enzymes to cure the pain. The Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine (IIIM) is conducting scientific research to learn more about the process of healing of patients suffering from cancer and epilepsy.
Studies have shown that cannabis contains nearly 120 components among which Cannabinoids (CBD) and Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are said to be psychotropic in nature. When these compounds get mixed with the cannabinoid receptors of body, it gives an energy boost or a euphoric feeling which is believed to be a stress-relieving quotient, resulting a ‘hit’.
The last decade have witnessed a surge in the global market for cannabis which is now estimated to become a billion-dollar industry. In United State, 21% annual growth rate of cannabis is been projected by the end of year 2021 which roughly accounts to $7.5 billion revenue in a year. It is expected that global market value of legal marijuana will be around $146.4 billion by the end of year 2025.
Various hemp companies such as Namrata Hemp Company (Bangalore), Hempsters (Hyderabad), Bombay Hemp Company (Mumbai) are some of the budding start-ups which are believed to have successful business prospects in future. The newly founded Hemp Street is said to be the country’s first research to retail venture in the ayurvedic cannabis sector.
The Central Law
The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act of 1985 prohibits cultivation, production, possession, sale, purchase, consumption of cannabis. Section 2(iii) gives a definition of cannabis (hemp) which includes charas, (a separated resin, in whatever form), ganja (flowering or fruiting tops of the cannabis plant) and any mixture or drink prepared from charas or ganja.
Section 8 prohibits the cultivation, sale, purchase, consumption and production of cannabis plant, except for the medicinal and scientific use in the manner as prescribed by the Act. According to section 20 of the Act, persons in possession of the drug is liable for punishment as per the small and commercial quantity. Apart from these provisions, other rules have been implemented regarding these drugs. In Maharashtra, the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949 prohibits the sale, purchase, possession, etc. of intoxicating drugs which includes cannabis.
The potency of cannabis has increased in last few decades, so much so that it poses the risks of causing psychosis. Although, cannabis contains CBD which counters the effects of psychosis and is even tested as a treatment to cure anxiety produced by THC, but the consumption of THC levels has been increasing from 4% in 1995 to 12% in 2014. Recent studies have shown that the more consumption of cannabis can lead to psychosis. A study from Britain has proved that although there is a significant rise in use of cannabis from 1996 to 2005, the number of psychosis cases have remained stable. Now, it is evident that illegal dealings in cannabis are still prevalent in India and an inference can be drawn that laws are not deterring people from using cannabis. Therefore, instead of criminalizing the recreational use of cannabis, an effort should be made to make it safer by putting an age bar or to legalize cannabis which contains low percentage of CBD, etc.
Another argument to look into in regards of this matter is that cannabis can become a gateway drug, i.e., it can further give access to other hard drugs. According to a research 45% of cannabis users have took some other illegal drug at some point and therefore, legalizing cannabis can enhance this trend, as more adults who want to try cannabis might end up trying other hard drugs. But, counter to this can be that even if cannabis is made illegal, it is not sure that people will restrain themselves from resorting to other options, including hard drugs. It is important to note that drug abuse can be more of a psychological problem than a physical problem, and therefore drug abuse should be seen as a chronic disease rather than a crime. Thus, instead of punishing, various rehabilitation programmes can be launched to help people from getting addicted to these drugs. This would not only decrease the number of chronic addicted patients, but will also decrease the overall use of cannabis and other hard drugs.
Lastly, various arguments were been made that addiction to drugs, especially during teenage years may lead to hormonal disorders, high blood pressure, brain malfunctioning, etc. But these researches have failed to provide a definite conclusion as to what extent does it harms. Therefore, it is important to conduct more research in order to reach a proper conclusion. But, to put things into perspective, legality is a way to exercise control over the use of cannabis even for recreational purpose, for that matter. This will be beneficial to protect teenagers from drug abuse. It is harder to buy legal drugs for teenagers than to buy illegal ones as the sellers might face difficult charges against them or even lose their license. Legality creates an incentive that the drug dealers cannot exploit. Moreover, legality of other substances like tobacco and cigarettes have not specifically proven that people will not get addicted to these. Just like these substances, cannabis does have harmful consequences on obsessive consumers. But the overall idea behind the legality is not to endorse, but rather to take responsibility for the risks it poses.
While the on-going legal and social battle to decriminalize use of cannabis is incessant, it is necessary to consider the risks attached with decriminalizing and commercializing cannabis. According to the report of National Academy of Medicine that commercialization of cannabis will eventually lead to its addiction, mainly because of its dependency. Addiction of such drugs can result in loss of cognitive senses of brain and in spite of curing diseases it can expose people to further harm.
The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment along with National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre (NDDTC) and All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi have submitted a report on Magnitude of Substance Use in India (2019). According to this report a substantial number of people use psychoactive substances in India but the adult men bear the brunt of substance use disorders. In India, 1 out of every 11 individuals suffers from cannabis dependence and 1 out of every 7 individuals is dependent on ganja/charas. UP, Punjab, Sikkim, Chhattisgarh and Delhi exhibits prevalence of cannabis use (higher than national). The rate of use of cannabis in Punjab. alone stands at 12.55%.
Estimates unveils that, as of 2018, approximately 28 lakh individuals are drastically affected with cannabis dependency and require serious help. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in its recent World Drug Report have estimated that nearly 1.2% of Indian population aged 15 – 64 years are current users of cannabis.
The survey report has recommended an urgent need of polished laws, policies and social programmes to provide care and aid to the affected individuals as these are the recent public health concerns. Measures such as framing conducive legal and policy environment to curb drug abuse and evidence-based substance use prevention programmes focusing on youth is an urgent need. Although, the NDPS Act has controlled the abuse of narcotic and psychotropic substances in the country but the use of such substances is still prevalent in the society. The criminalization of abusers has escalated the stigma which impedes their treatment. Thus, the government have to realize that it is incumbent on them to act towards minimizing these stigmas and take actions by furnishing health and welfare services. Therefore, there is a need for responsible legalization and regulation of these substances.