The Legal Status of Cannabis in India

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This article has been written by Mustafa Chitalwala., a student of Symbiosis Law School, Pune

“High time for India to embrace the health, business, and broader societal benefits that legally regulating cannabis can bring”. – Shashi Tharoor.[1]

Nowadays, the world is accepting cannabis and legalising its consumption by researching on the benefits the plant holds. Cannabis is a plant with psychoactive properties. India has been using Cannabis for industrial, medical, and religious purposes since aeons. In India, several names have been given to this plant, popular ones such as Ganja, Bhang, Hemp and Charas. Nevertheless, the most widely used type of cannabis in India is in the form of bhang which is used to make “Thandai”, an auspicious drink consumed during the festivals of Holi, Maha Shiv Ratri and the Hola Mohalla Sikh Festival, and other festive forms. However, the focal concern in uncertainty is whether Cannabis Legal in India?

LEGALITY OF CANNABIS?

Cannabis in India is surprisingly illegal under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, a central law which regulates the consumption of Cannabis. The Act has maintained the same definition of cannabis, excluding bhang from its prospects. According to NDPS, Section 2(3) “Cannabis” means:

(a) charas, that is, the separated resin, in whatever form, whether crude or purified, obtained from the cannabis plant, and includes concentrated preparation and resin known as hashish oil or liquid hashish;

(b) ganja, that is, the flowering or fruiting tops of the cannabis plant (excluding the seeds and leaves when not accompanied by the tops), by whatever name they may be known or designated; and

(c) any mixture, with or without any neutral material, of any of the above forms of cannabis or any drink, prepared from there;

Until 1986, all cannabis products were sold legally in India. The United States of America considered the plant as a hard drug and started a worldwide campaign to adopt the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961. After more than 25 years of pressure from the U.S government, India gave in to the demands and enacted the NDPS Act in 1986.
However, different states in India have different laws for the consumption of this plant. For instance, Uttarakhand became the first state to legalise the consumption of cannabis for commercial cultivation. Whereas in Odisha, the use of this plant is legalised. In Maharashtra, Section 66(1)(b) of the Bombay Prohibition (B.P.) Act, 1949 forbids the manufacture, possession and consumption of non-licensed bhang and bhang-containing substances. On February 21, 2017, Gujarat legalised bhang by removing it from the list of “intoxicating drugs” covered under Section 23 of the Gujarat Prohibition Act. So, India is slowly accepting the fact that cannabis is a beneficial plant and has both commercial and medical use to it.

WHAT IS THE PUNISHMENT FOR CARRYING CANNABIS IN INDIA?

India, the roots of cannabis, was traced all the way back to 1700 BCE nearly 5000 years ago. India has stringent laws against the use of cannabis. Even caught holding a small quantity of cannabis can get you into trouble. According to section 20 of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, holding a small quantity for recreational purpose can land you up in prison for up to six months or a fine of Rs.10,000 or both. Conversely, if a person found addicted to such substance will not be prosecuted if he decides to undergo treatment. In the case of commercial quantity (20kg), the punishment is harsh imprisonment for 10 to 20 years or a fine of Rs 1 to 2 lakh or both.

THE GREAT LEGALISATION MOVEMENT OF INDIA

The Great Legalization Movement is a non-profit organisation, working towards legalising cannabis for medical and industrial purposes. The founder Viki Vaurora had written an open letter to the Prime Minister and the member of Parliament encouraging the imperative need to legalise the cultivation. In February 2018, the Prime Minister’s Office sent a notification to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare guiding the ministry to examine the prospective benefits of cannabis and issued a response to the letter. On July 2019, the Delhi High Court agreed to hear a petition, filed by the Great Legalisation Movement Trust, challenging the ban on cannabis. The public interest litigation argues that grouping cannabis with other chemical drugs under the NDPS Act is “arbitrary, unscientific and unreasonable”.
Few government officials have spoken in favour of legalisation of cannabis. Government officials being Maneka Gandhi, MP Tathagata Satpathy, MP Dharamvir Gandhi and Shashi Tharoor. Even States such as Madhya Pradesh is in planning to legalise the plant to attract new business. Recently, it was announced in February 2020 that the BJP government in Manipur is also considering the legalisation of cannabis for medical and industrial purposes.

MARKET FOR CANNABIS IN INDIA

India has a broad market for the cannabis plant and with reports predicting the global cannabis market to reach $146.6 billion by the end of 2025. India needs to take the opportunity to boost the economy in such problematic times. In Himachal Pradesh, nearly 100,000kgs of cannabis is produced, out of that merely 500 kgs are seized annually. The Government is content on surviving on crumbs, while others eat the bread. India should legalise cannabis and add extra income in the state’s pocket, and it can help the farmers since the plant is a cash-crop; it’s easy to grow and requires minimal water. According to the UNODC’s World Drug Report, the retail price of cannabis in India was US$0.10 per gram, the lowest of any country in the world, where Cannabis is 400 times cheaper in India than in Japan. Legalising and taxing such item will not only boost the economy but create another substitute product for consumption.


The retail price of cannabis in India is the lowest amongst these countries.

MEDICAL CANNABIS

The Indian government has begun its research on the benefits of Cannabis. Many countries have allowed the use of medical cannabis. India has the world’s most chronic pain cases. There is ample of evidence to highlight the therapeutic properties of cannabis. It has the potential to alleviate chronic pain, Alzheimer’s disease, loss of appetite, cancer, Crohn’s disease, eating disorders and mental health conditions like schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder.
On February 1st, 2020, India’s first Medical Cannabis Clinic opened its doors in Bangalore. The Vedi Wellness Center regards to open to new ideas and treatment methods. This is also where the Great Legalization Movement began. The clinic is mirroring a trend from other developed countries. In Ayurveda, since ancient times, the cannabis plant has been used for medicinal purposes. Baba Ramdev’s company which has made a fortune selling ayurvedic commodities has taken a cue from the western world and has begun research on the cannabis plant.

DECRIMINALIZING CANNABIS WILL HELP REDUCE ADDICTION.

In 1894, the Report of the India Hemp Drugs Commission, commissioned by the U.K. Secretary of State and the government of India, was instrumental in a decision not to criminalise the drug in those countries. Cannabis Addiction is a rare occurrence. The epidemiological analysis found that just 9 percent of people who use cannabis end up being clinically dependent on it. The ‘equivalent rates’ for tobacco and alcohol were 32 percent and 15 percent.
Recently a study shown by 2018 Cannabis Price Index revealed that Delhi is the 3rd highest consumer of cannabis in the world whereas Mumbai is 6th on this position[2], which shows that even after stringent laws, the people are still consuming cannabis. However, a country such as the Netherlands have already legalised cannabis and have been placed on the 56th position of cannabis consumption report. Portugal in the 90s was suffering from a severe drug addiction problem. However, in 2001 it took a bold decision to decriminalise all drugs. Even though drugs remained illegal, a small amount would not lead to an arrest. There was a substantial increase in the rehabilitation centres since the Portuguese government spent less time and capital to fight the drugs and more on healthcare. In 2020 nearly a tiny fraction of the people in Portuguese are addicted to drugs.
This only shows us that India needs to take small steps and legalise Cannabis, which will help the government control the quality of this drug and bring down the THC levels, thus emitting the black-market production. The government will make rules and regulations, but the trade will be ‘populated by the government, farmers, merchants and retails clerks, not by criminals or drug dealers’

CONCLUSION

It’s ironic having forced India to shut its Cannabis Industry, America have legalised cannabis in the majority of their states. India is in a state of economic limbo. The Coronavirus is the biggest emergency since Independence, and the World Bank and credit rating agencies have downgraded India’s 2021 fiscal year growth with India’s lowest figures seen since the 1990s liberalisation. It is time for India to rise and legalise the medical use of cannabis.

The Reasons to Legalize Cannabis:

  1.  The plant is not only used as a medical boon, but hemp can be refined into a variety of commercial items, including paper, textiles, clothing, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, food, and animal feed. Opening India to the whole new $100 billion market.
  2.  The legalisation of this plant in India will reduce the potential harms of the drug’s use, put a dent in corruption and crime, and provide our country with the economic boost it needs. Our distressed Indian farmers can use this cash crop since it takes bare minimum time and water to grow.
  3.  The legalisation of cannabis for commercial and medical purposes in Colorado has created 10,000 new jobs in the region. There is a plethora of employment that can be created by the cannabis industry and help reduce India’s unemployment rate.
  4.  The legalisation would ensure that better quality cannabis is sold to customers. In India, traffickers sometimes combine hash and cannabis with chemicals or other drugs such as afeem to enhance the taste, colour, texture or ‘high’ of the product. Legalisation would increase the quality of cannabis sold to consumers as the government would control the manufacture and distribution of the drug.

The laws on cannabis in India are obsolete and necessitate long-awaited reconsideration. The increasing number of start-up cannabis and hemp companies and the rising mainstream support for the legalisation of plants are promising, although legalisations are still far from achievable. Given the medical and economic reasons for cannabis legalisation, the full potential of legalisation could not be long before the Indian Government has legalised cannabis.

[1] The Print. n.d. High Time India, The Land Of Bhang, Legalises Marijuana. [online]

[2] Indian Cities Delhi, Mumbai ‘High’ on Cannabis Consumption List, 2018

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