For the second time in Indian history, the legality of the world’s most controversial and popular “drug”—cannabis—will be discussed within the four walls of an Indian courtroom.
Come Monday, the Delhi High Court Court will be hearing a writ petition filed by Bangalore-based NGO The Great Legalisation Movement, which seeks to challenge the criminalisation and prohibition of cannabis use in India. The petition specifically challenges the constitutionality of certain provisions of the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS), 1985, as well as the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Rules, 1985, that restrict and criminalise the medical use of cannabis as well as industrial hemp and all peripheral activities related to it.
The 170-page document describes in detail how cannabis can be used to fight cancer, reduce nausea and for increasing the appetite of HIV patients. It addresses the agrarian crisis currently plaguing India and appeals to encourage the growth of industrial hemp industry, arguing that hemp can be used as a substitute for plastic, as well as for making everything from clothes to paper products. It reads: “The treatment of cannabis at par with other harmful and lethal chemicals is arbitrary, unscientific, unreasonable and hence unconstitutional.”
Viki Vaurora, founder, The Great Legalisation Movement, tells Newslaundry: “The primary thing that we are addressing is that cannabis shouldn’t even be there in the NDPS. It is an entheogen and a very sacred plant of India, and to club it along with other illegal toxic chemicals is a bad move. India didn’t conduct any kind of scientific review or the use of cannabis in the field of Ayurveda … all of this was overlooked just because India was a signatory to the Convention of Narcotics in 1961 and to the Convention of Psychotropic Substances in 197.”
Vaurora says the government has legalised alcohol and tobacco and promoted it to such an extent that certain parts of the economy run on alcohol consumption. “This is wrong,” he explains. When asked what prompted him to move the Delhi HC regarding the legalisation of cannabis, he says it was a product of repeated failures at engaging in dialogue with state authorities to discuss the issue.
Finally, in December 2017, his organisation approached the Prime Minister’s Office with a letter. The PMO cleared it within a month and the letter was sent to the Ministry of Health, who in turn forwarded it to the Central Drugs Research Organisation (CDRO), asking it to decide whether this drug can be legalised in India or not.
“The CDRO was given 30 days to respond,” Vaurora says. “But till today, after nearly 500 days of writing that letter, nothing has materialised. This is the kind of bureaucracy that we deal with.”
In the past decade, there has been a steady global trend regarding the legalisation and regulation of medical as well as recreational cannabis. In 2013, Uruguay became the first country to explicitly legalise all aspects related to marijuana. Italy, Romania and the Czech Republic legalised medical cannabis in the same year. In 2014, Colorado and Washington state became the first states in the US to legalise the recreational use of marijuana. In June 2018, Canada became the second country in the world to legalise the use of cannabis for personal consumption.
Just last week, a study conducted and published by Grand View Research stated that the global legal marijuana market size was estimated at a whopping $13.8 billion in 2018 and that this number is projected to expand to 23.9% by 2025. “Growing legalisation in various countries is primarily driving the market,” read the report while noting that “legalisation of medical marijuana and decriminalization in some countries has led to a significant decrease in the black market, as people are resorting to legally purchasing cannabis for medical as well as recreational use.”
The study also brought to light how the government could add to their coffers by taxing the product, which would also lead to a decrease in the black market space used to push and transport these drugs illegally.
Colorado is quite the case study when it comes to raking in the green. CNBC reported that on June 12, 2019, Colorado had announced that it had surpassed $1 billion in total cannabis-related revenue—thereby making it the first state in the US to hit that milestone. According to the article, cannabis-related companies have made more than $6.5 billion in sales over the last five years, with April and May of the current year recording the highest-grossing months since legalisation in 2014.
But even with this global boom, India seems to be dragging its heels when it comes to the medical and industrial benefits of legalising, cultivating and regulating cannabis. Marijuana is banned for recreational and medicinal purposes under the NDPS law, but the industrial use of “bhang” during the festival of Holi continues to be socially acceptable. As a result, India has a thriving black market for cannabis that operates on cash, especially in certain states like Himachal Pradesh, where cannabis cultivation and tourism is common.
However, it’s not like efforts have not been made to address the issue of legalising cannabis in India. In 2014, a bench of Justice V M Kanade and Shalini Phansalkar-Joshi heard—and then later dismissed—a public interest litigation filed by Aditya Barthakur, a lawyer, urging the court to decriminalise cannabis under the NDPS law. In 2017, Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi suggested legalising marijuana in India for medical purposes. The suggestion was made at a meeting of a group of ministers (GOM) chaired by Home Minister Rajnath Singh, during which she said that in “some of the developed countries like the US, marijuana has been legalised which ultimately results in less drug abuse”, adding that “the possibility of the same maybe explored in India.” At the time, Gandhi told PTI that “marijuana should be legalised for medical purposes, especially as it serves a purpose in cancer”. In June 2018, Shashi Tharoor wrote a piece along with his nephew Avinash for The Print, in which he argued in favour of the legalisation and regulation of cannabis in India.
Given all of this, it comes as no surprise that the chatter around cannabis legalisation has been growing louder with each passing year. But can today’s hearing be a new chapter in India’s history over the battle of drugs? That’s something only time will tell.
Update: An earlier version of the headline read “Raking in the green: Can India become the first Asian country to become 4/20 friendly?” The headline has been updated. We regret the error.