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Back with a B(h)ang: The Curious Case of Cannabis in India

Updated: Oct 21, 2020


Cannabis is one of the most widely used psychoactive substances worldwide and is mainly associated with three species of flowering plants, Sativa, Indica and Ruberelis.[1] The more popular Cannabis Indica is indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and central Asia where it has thrived in the climates of the Himalayan foothills and adjoining plains.[2] In India, the accounts of its first use date back to thousands of years and its consumption remains deeply embedded in the ancient Hindu traditions that dominate the region. From being mentioned as a sacred grass in the Atarva Veda (1400-2000BC), and medicinal herb in the Sushruta Samhita (600AD), to its endearing association with Lord Shiva, cannabis products remain an essential part of Hindu religious observances and widely consumed on annual festivals of Shiva Ratri, Holi, Kali Puja, etc.[3,4]


In India, the three common derivatives of cannabis generally consumed are, a) ganja (marijuana), the dried flower buds or fruits of the female cannabis plant, b) charas (hashish), the resinous exudation secreted by the leaves, stems and flowers of the plant, and c) bhang, a grinded paste of only the matured leaves.[2,5] For centuries, cannabis was freely used in India and its cultivation as a fiber crop was even institutionalized and encouraged during the British era.[6] It was only in 1985, after pressures from Western countries that the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act was passed in India effectively banning production, sale and consumption of cannabis. The rule was rather peculiar since it only prohibited consumption of marijuana and hashish, whereas bhang, which has greater cultural significance among Hindus, was technically still allowed.[7] The rule is further muddled by the fact that the cultivation of the entire cannabis plant is strictly prohibited, whereas harvesting only the cannabis leaves from wild plants for bhang is still considered legal. Despite the law in place for the last three decades, the prevalence of use of cannabis has grown exponentially in India during this period and in 2018 alone, it was estimated that 2.8 percent (31 million) of the population had consumed cannabis during that year.[8] Cannabis remains the most trafficked illicit substance in India, and two Indian cities of Mumbai and Delhi are among the top ten in the world with highest cannabis consumption and also the lowest cannabis prices.[9-12] The growing cannabis use in India resembles the global trend which has been fueled by the changes in public perceptions towards cannabis and subsequent push for legalization in many countries.


The proponents for cannabis legalization paint it as a benign drug with low addiction propensity and minimal health consequences.[13,14] Tobacco and alcohol, both of which are legal in most countries, are also often paralleled with cannabis to demonstrate how the health, social and economic costs of the two are worse than cannabis but their use is still permitted. Moreover, there is also some evidence of the medicinal utility of cannabis in treating or managing certain physical and psychological health conditions. Compared to illicit narcotics like opioids and stimulants, cannabis is increasingly being recognized as a ‘soft’ drug for its manageable intoxication and mild physical effects, only furthering its popularity, particularly among young substance enthusiasts. Despite its benevolent reputation, the dark side of the substance also needs to be fully considered before any strides towards mass legalization. Cannabis use disorder and dependence are recognized as legitimate mental health conditions and cannabis has also long been implicated in leading to or aggravating certain psychotic and neurotic conditions.[15, 16] Often, heavy use of cannabis is believed to lead to both physical and mental negative consequences; however, the lack of consistent scientific evidence and the small magnitude of its use have prevented its true potential from being fully realized. Given its illicit status, only a small proportion of the population has access to it and their use is also often underreported and misrepresented. Full legalization would lead to millions of people initiating its use after improved access, and there is always the danger of repeating the same ill-fated routes of tobacco and alcohol.


In India, legislation was proposed in 2016 in Parliament to legalize some forms of recreational cannabis use.[17] Some Indian states of Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh have also recently given permissions for the cultivation of cannabis for industrial and medicinal purposes.[18,19] Few private companies including Patanjali have also invested in developing a base for future commercial cannabis products in India.[20] There is an undeniable momentum towards gradual cannabis legalization in India and the public discussion that surrounds the issue of cannabis today is going to shape the policies of tomorrow. As a society, we need to step back and reevaluate cannabis objectively before we step into the unknown. What do you think about the issue of legalization of cannabis in India? Do you favor a move towards widespread cannabis legalization?


Please share your views on cannabis use with us by answering a few questions in the following link https://forms.gle/C18RuPwQPbCPDCRy9

(Disclaimer: Any views or opinions represented in this blog article are personal and belong solely to the author, and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the author may be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated.)

References

  1. Behere, A. P., Behere, P. B., & Rao, T. S. (2017). Cannabis: Does it have a medicinal value?. Indian journal of psychiatry, 59(3), 262 – 263. https://dx.doi.org/10.4103%2Fpsychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_208_17

  2. Chopra, I. C.; Chopra, R. N. (1957). The Use of the Cannabis Drugs in India. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 4 – 29. Retrieved from https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/ data-and-analysis/bulletin/bulletin_1957-01-01_1_page003.html

  3. Russo, E. (1998). Cannabis for migraine treatment: the once and future prescription? An historical and scientific review. Pain, 76(1-2), 3-8. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0304-3959(98)00033-5

  4. Aldrich, M. R. (1977). Tantric cannabis use in India. Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, 9(3), 227-233. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/02791072.1977.10472053

  5. Tandon, T. (2019). Drug Policy in India: Key developments since the UNGASS 2016. International Drug Policy Consortium. Retrieved from http://fileserver.idpc.net/library/India-drug-policy_FINAL.pdf

  6. Mold, A. (2018). Cannabis; Getting High: Marijuana Through the Ages. Cultural and Social History, 15(1), 152-154. https://doi.org/10.1080/14780038.2017.1415040

  7. Balhara, Y. P. S., & Mathur, S. (2014). Bhang-beyond the purview of the narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances act. Lung India: official organ of Indian Chest Society, 31(4), 431 – 432. https://dx.doi.org/10.4103%2F0970-2113.142109

  8. Ambekar, A. , Agrawal, A., Rao, R., Mishra, A. K., Khandelwal, S. K., & Chadda, R. K. on behalf of the group of investigators for the National Survey on Extent and Pattern of Substance Use in India (2019). Magnitude of Substance Use in India. New Delhi: Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India. Retrieved from http://socialjustice.nic.in/writereaddata/UploadFile/MagnitudeSubstance_Use_India_REPORT.pdf

  9. United Nations. (2019, March). Report of the International Narcotics Control Board for 2018. United Nations: International Narcotics Control Board. ISBN: 978-92-1-148308-6, ISSN 0257-3717. Retrieved from https://www.incb.org/documents/Publications/ AnnualReports/AR2018 /Annual_Report/Annual_Report_2018_E_.pdf

  10. Tandon, S. (2018, Jan 31). Delhi and Mumbai are among the world’s most stoned cities. Quartz India. Retrieved from https://qz.com/india/1193934/delhi-and-mumbai-are-among-the-worlds-most-stoned-cities/

  11. Times of India (2017, June 20). Cannabis-and-opium-based drugs cheapest in India. The Times of India. Retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/indian-drugs-cheapest-in-the-world/articleshow/59230170.cms

  12. Sharma, N. (2019, Sep 10). Delhi consumes more weed than Los Angeles, Mumbai more than London. Quartz India. Retrieved from https://qz.com/india/1705970/delhi-mumbai-among-worlds-biggest-consumers-of-weed/

  13. Lau, N., Sales, P., Averill, S., Murphy, F., Sato, S. O., & Murphy, S. (2015). A safer alternative: Cannabis substitution as harm reduction. Drug and alcohol review, 34(6), 654 – 659. https://doi.org/10.1111/dar.12275

  14. Aggarwal, S. K. (2013). ‘Tis in our nature: taking the human-cannabis relationship seriously in health science and public policy. Frontiers in psychiatry, 4, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00006

  15. Patel, J., & Marwaha, R.(2019, Jun 5). Cannabis Use Disorder, In StatPearls (Internet), StatPearls Publishing, Treasure Island (FL), US. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538131/

  16. Radhakrishnan, R., Wilkinson, S. T., & D’Souza, D. C. (2014). Gone to pot–a review of the association between cannabis and psychosis. Frontiers in psychiatry, 5, 54. 1- 24. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2014.00054

  17. Hindustan Times. (2016, Nov 2). Bill for legalised supply of opium, marijuana cleared for Parliament. Retrieved from https://www.hindustantimes.com/punjab/aap-mp-gandhi-s-bill-seeking-opium-legalisation-cleared-for-tabling-in-parliament/story-itanKX3vRrhuXJPdgnJD6N.html

  18. Mehrotra, P. K. (2018, Oct 6). Is India losing out on a ready-to-boom cannabis market by not legalising its use? The Economic Times, India Times. Retrieved from https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/cons-products/tobacco/is-india-losing-out-on-a-ready-to-boom-cannabis-market-by-not-legalising-itsuse/articleshow/66101561.cms?from=mdr

  19. Deccan Herald. (2019, Nov 21). Madhya Pradesh govt to legalise cannabis cultivation. Deccan Herald. Retrieved from https://www.deccanherald.com/national/north-and-central/madhya-pradesh-govt-to-legalise-cannabis-cultivation-778282.html

  20. Tandon, S. (2018, Feb 6). India’s cannabis economy has a new hope—Patanjali. Quartz India. Retrieved from https://qz.com/india/1191203/patanjali-the-indian-cannabis-economys-new-hope/

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