Joint Effort: India Must Start A Discourse on Marijuana

If the government is serious about tackling the drug menace, it must reassess legislation pertaining to marijuana.

WrittenBy:Sidharth Ravi
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The first joint I smoked was outside a popular bar, Gokul, at Colaba in Mumbai. In hindsight, we really should have known better. Cheery after a couple of beers, the “more experienced” among us suggested we roll one and take it outside. “Here? In Colaba? In the open?”, “Yeah, don’t worry! I’ve done this before.” No sooner had we finished one round than cops surrounded us and caught hold of three out of the five of us.

My first experience with marijuana was unfortunate. We, of course, pleaded and begged and got away. However, for cultivators that get arrested, the law prescribes a maximum of a 10-year prison term. The maximum sentence for rape is seven years.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his recent radio address spoke about drug abuse in India. He talked about how it wasn’t the users who were at fault, but the drugs that were the issue. The address was pertinent given the growing menace of drugs. In Punjab, even police personnel are being admitted into rehab clinics. While it might be a bright idea to set up a “toll free helpline to assist drug abusers seeking to rehabilitate”, it is also important to begin a discourse on the status of marijuana in the country.

From legal to illegal

Until the 1980s, India consumed weed without any stigma. Marijuana was freely available and even distributed by government-endorsed retail outlets.

However, owing to the US’ fascination for waging wars of all sorts, all this was soon going to change. The “War on Drugs” campaign launched by the Nixon administration in the 70s sought to curb the world trade and production of narcotics. Because of some highly contested – and conspiratorial – reasons ranging from articles that raised mass hysteria to good old racism, the US advocated the inclusion of Cannabis in the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotics, 1961.

From then on, cannabis was clubbed along with opium, heroin, cocaine and 109 other controlled substances under the “Schedule I” category of drugs. Legislation that sprouted in various countries along the lines of the convention also clubbed cannabis with hard drugs and prescribed similar punitive action against cultivators and people found in possession of it. This, it is sometimes argued, lead to a rise in trade of hard drugs because the risk associated with dealing in cannabis and hard drugs was the same.

At the time the convention was being deliberated on, India stood in the opposition, especially to certain provisions dealing with opium and cannabis. Since India has an ancient cultural and traditional history with the two drugs, it had managed to gain certain concessions. For instance, the use of leaves and seeds of the weed plant was deemed legal, and only the ingestion of the flowering top was a punishable offence.

Even today, government-approved shops in several states, including but not limited to Rajasthan, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh sell “bhang”, which is made of the leaves of the Cannabis plant.

India along with a few other countries had also been allowed “transitional provisions” that gave it a 25-year buffer period before ratifying the convention. So, in 1985, when the period came to an end, the Rajiv Gandhi government passed the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act that has since come under sharp criticism time and again. The status of drugs and usage are controlled by the NDPS and the Prevention of Illicit Trafficking in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (1985).

According to data on the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) website, 67 per cent of the illicit drug seizure cases from the year 2007-2011 are marijuana and/or hashish related. Only 43 per cent of the cases deal with the seizure of hard drugs like opium and heroin.

Given that India’s criminal justice system is already overburdened, it seems ridiculous to continue to pour in resources to go after what is an arguably less addictive, recreational psychoactive herb that is less toxic than tobacco. Also, it doesn’t lead to aggressive tendencies like alcohol. This, especially when America (and now several other countries), which rallied for creating strict laws in the first place are on the path of decriminalising and legalising marijuana.

What science tells us

Now, a recent study that examined adolescents undergoing treatment for marijuana dependency, worryingly claims that 40 per cent of them displayed withdrawal symptoms (albeit milder than those caused by other drugs).

At the same time, it has been ascertained that marijuana consumption can be safer than alcohol and tobacco consumption. For instance, it would take 40,000 times the amount of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the chemical contained in the plant that gives it psychoactive properties — one normally consumes to get high to be able to overdose on marijuana. It would take only five to 10 times the amount of alcohol one consumes to get drunk, to kill an individual.

In order to ascertain toxicity levels, scientists determine the “lethal dosage” level of a substance. They administer the substance to test animals until 50 per cent of them die. The formula is known as the LD-50. Caffeine has an LD-50 of 127mg/kg of body weight, cigarettes have a LD-50 of 50mg/kg.

It has been determined that very small animals such as rats and mice, can take in as much as 1000mg/kg of marijuana before they die owing to “profound central nervous depression”. Larger animals did not reach the LD-50 despite giving them as much as 3000mg/kg of body weight.


Purchasing weed is one of the easiest transactions an individual can make today. Vendors are at every corner of towns and cities. Despite more and more drug raids being carried out, the demand for it is only rising.

However, since these vendors are not regulated, it poses multiple problems, not least of which is funnelling money into illegal activities. For instance, the weed that’s currently in the market is often heavily adulterated with shoe polish or rat poison (because they burn the same way and it’s difficult to tell the difference). It can also be laced with opium that not only gives the herb a stronger kick, but also makes a relatively harmless substance dangerous.

The Colorado government that legalised the sale of marijuana in November, 2012, has projected a staggering $98 million in tax revenue by the end of 2014. By August, this year, marijuana sale stacked up $34 million in sales for the US state. There’s a lot of easy money to be made in dealing drugs, the combination of a continuous demand and the illegality of it ensures it remains a suppliers’ market.

In the meantime, the Indian government is foregoing precious revenue. It’s noteworthy that in Tamil Nadu, the state-run alcohol distributor is one of the few government institutions in the country to earn profit, which is used to fund the state’s social welfare schemes.


If the Indian government does plan to innovate in dealing with the drug menace, it has to move beyond social taboos and misplaced misgivings. It would serve itself well to learn from the example of countries the world over that are moving towards softer legislation on marijuana. (In 2013, The Economist nominated Uruguay as the best country in the world among other reasons because it legalised the sale of marijuana.)

With the mass of evidence staring us in the face, more than anything else, it is important to begin a discourse on marijuana for two chief reasons. First, there exists much misinformation around marijuana and its consequences: social, economic, physiological. Second, because it’s important for the public and policy makers to hash out what course of action will be best for India.

Do we continue to sit on the fence with laws that are outdated? Or do we move with the times and try to adopt a more comprehensive and well thought-out legislation? An informed debate is necessary.

Finally, let’s not forget that there’s also the case of the cultivators to be taken up. With marijuana getting legalised in the West and a growing sense of tolerance, ganja is emerging as a cash crop. The 2013 documentary film, Goonj-The Empty call beautifully explains the predicament of the residents of Manala of Manala Cream fame whose lives have for centuries been linked to the plant.

In the film, Naseeruddin Shah asks the question: where do we stand?

He says: “…many feel the holy weed marijuana should be legalised however these are uncharted and unknown territories. I wonder if we are equipped enough to venture into them… [the debate is] about India, it is about the world. It has become a socio-political issue and echoed back again as a matter of right and wrong. But perhaps we only need find a middle path, perhaps we need to find a solution that justifies both sides.”

I leave you with this video of people reacting to the question: ‘Should marijuana be legalised?


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