High Time India, The Land Of Bhang, Legalizes Marijuana

Photo Credit: Robert F. Bukaty

I have never tried a recreational drug in my life. Not even as a collegian in the early 1970s, where many joked that they were living up to the name of their college, since St Stephen was a saint who was stoned to death. I have never tasted bhang, even for Holi.

And yet I am convinced that legally regulating the production, supply, and use of cannabis in India will reduce the potential harms of the drug’s use, put a dent in corruption and crime, and provide our country with an economic boost. My nephew, Avinash, who has been working on drug policy issues, has joined me to explain why.

The prohibition of cannabis was first entrenched in Indian law in 1985, with the introduction of The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. However, the drug had already been illegal in the country for over two decades because our government had signed the UN’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs treaty in 1961. This piece of international legislation stands out in its emotional wording; unlike most treaties, which employ accurate and objective terminology to identify their goals, the Single Convention refers to drug addiction as “a serious evil for the individual [that] is fraught with social and economic danger to mankind”.

This hyperbolic phrasing formed the base upon which international cannabis prohibition was built, inflicting needless black-market violence across the world to suppress the trade of a drug with far less harms than alcohol, tobacco, or even many of the drugs you may find in your medicine cabinet.

Before we go further, it is important to note that cannabis is by no means harmless. While many people who use it will not experience serious harms, research suggests that it can trigger or exacerbate certain mental health issues for some people. Those who use it as adolescents or younger may be more likely to develop mental health problems later in life. In some cases, it can also make people feel nauseous, lethargic, forgetful, anxious, or confused.

The potential risks that cannabis pose illustrate why it is our duty to legally regulate this drug. Rather than leaving the trade of cannabis in the hands of an unregulated criminal market, the drug should be safely produced by competent farmers, packaged and tested in suitable facilities, and sold by reputable and licensed vendors.

Many buyers currently find themselves ogling a nondescript tola of hashish, which their supplier may assure them is of the highest quality, flown in fresh from Manali. The buyer has no knowledge of its THC strength – the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis that gives the “high” – and pays no tax duty on their purchase. Regulation allows cannabis buyers to know what they’re consuming and moderate their intake, in the same way that a drinker can distinguish and choose between a whiskey and a beer. Imposing tax on cannabis sales can create revenue that can be spent on educating people about the risks of cannabis use, as we already do with public service information on alcohol and tobacco.

Regulation is not only beneficial for people who want to use cannabis safely; it also enhances security for all of society, as it helps undermine criminal markets. Due to the drug’s illegality, cannabis sales currently line the pockets of various characters in a vast criminal underworld, some of whom may be committing far more nefarious crimes.

Meanwhile, the cannabis trade relies upon the corruption of authority – whether it be the street-side smoker slipping Rs 100 to the local officer to escape prosecution, or the trafficking group which maintains the safe passage of kilos through towns and states by bribe or blackmail. Cannabis regulation will not solve all these problems, but it will reduce their scope.

The “war on drugs” pursued for the last 50 years has been lost – a conclusion arrived at by thousands of NGOs, politicians, and scientists around the world, including many former heads of state, Kofi Annan and Nobel Literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.

Prohibition stabilises illegal drug markets worldwide and ensures unbelievable profits for organised crime. Yet, the legalisation of the sale of certain drugs could allow for high tax revenues, with which – similar to the legal drugs tobacco and alcohol – awareness and prevention work could be funded. Moreover, taking this step would significantly reduce the illegal drug trade and the criminal activity that accompanies it.

Alongside the money saved on policing and imprisoning people for cannabis offences, legal regulation would also provide a boost to our economy – the creation of a whole new legal industry. In the US state of Colorado, where cannabis has been legal for four years, there were over $1.5 billion worth of sales in 2017 (incidentally, Colorado’s population is just 0.4 per cent that of India’s). India could lead the way in Asian cannabis regulation – creating thousands of jobs from farms to factories.

And what better place to take this progressive leap than India? The cannabis plant, although now grown the world over, is indigenous to the subcontinent. In fact, one of the two main species of the plant – Cannabis indica – is named after our country. Cannabis is referred to in ancient Indian historic and religious texts, in accounts by Portuguese visitors and British invaders, and continues to be used in Hindu rituals across the country – most commonly in bhang form.

While we continue to be party to the Single Convention, the backbone of international drug laws that thrust the chaos of cannabis prohibition into India, we may be able to legally regulate the drug domestically without amending the treaty. Legal experts in Canada (where a legally regulated cannabis industry will be introduced later this year) say that regulation is permissible in countries that have signed the treaty because the document allows for the sale and use of drugs for a vaguely-defined purpose: “medical and scientific research”. Allowing and assessing the effects of legal regulation, they argue, is itself “scientific research”.

The international prohibition of cannabis has failed in every country that has attempted to implement it. Instead of stopping drug use, cannabis prohibition has fuelled violence and criminality, increased health harms, and cost society an exorbitant and immeasurable sum of money.

Now, as Canada, Uruguay, and several US states end cannabis prohibition and begin to legally regulate the drug, India must take notice. It’s high time for India to embrace the health, business, and broader societal benefits that legally regulating cannabis can bring.