The campaign to legalize marijuana in India is a perpetual one. Whether it is lobby groups, startups, or medical practitioners, many of us want to not be held for possessing it. However, the Indian system has some inherent problems which legalization alone cannot fix in the long run.
The history of marijuana
The history of weed starts a long time before Peter Tosh sang “Legalize it” and Bob Marley sang “Got to have kaya (weed)” in the 70s. The fact that it has been decriminalized in the ‘high’ state of Jamaica only last year says a lot about the world’s reluctance towards normalising it.
In Asia, marijuana has been a part of culture since ancient times. It finds a mention in the Vedas for its medicinal properties. Bhang is connected to Lord Shiva, which is probably why it is still legal. The road to criminalization began in the late 1890s when the British began studies on the harmful effects of marijuana. Yet, when the UN’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs placed it in the category of hard drugs, India’s stand was that it is an integral part of our culture. In 1985, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act was passed, which retained the international definition of cannabis but excluded bhang from it. Today, possession can attract a 20 year jail term.
The Western world has been going in the opposite direction, which is towards progress. While India hasn’t budged in spite of a growing lobby of pro-legalization entities, 29 states in the US have legalized it for recreational or medical use in the last decade itself. Canada, UK, Lesotho, and other countries around the world have legalized or decriminalized it in some form.
Marijuana isn’t exactly a hard drug. At the most, it is a gateway drug, one that can initiate you into hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin. In judicious amounts, it has positive effects. The WHO has recognized its utility in treating cancer, AIDS, asthma, glaucoma, and a lot of other ailments. In uncontrolled amounts, marijuana can be addictive and can lead to memory loss, neurological complications, and schizophrenia, among other serious health concerns. It is, however, a popular conception that an overdose cannot be fatal.
The highs of legalization
The most striking example of the positives of legalization is Portugal, where one in every 10 people was addicted to heroin in the 1980s. In 2001, the country came up with the most radical drug policy. It decriminalized all drugs, including hard drugs. Drug addicts were treated as patients and not criminals. Trials, sentences, and courtrooms were replaced with mandatory medical assistance. There was a huge drop in overdose deaths and HIV infections fell down from 104.2 new cases per million in 2000 to 4.2 cases per million in 2015. This just shows that when executed right, legalization can work wonders.
Now let’s move to the economics of it. Delhi and Mumbai are amongst the top consumers in the world. The costs range from anything around Rs.2000 to Rs.50,000 per kilo or even more. There is a huge, unregulated, black market which is supplying cheap marijuana spiked with afeem, shoe polish, and whatnot. The whole point of criminalizing it is clearly not working in bringing down consumption. Regulation and quality control is needed to ensure that people consume it at fair prices and that their health is not compromised by it.
The US marijuana industry is expected to reach $40 billion by next year. Imagine the amount of growth by means by tax revenue, investment, profits to farmers, and creation of jobs in our country of over a billion people. MP, UP, and Uttarakhand have recently legalized industrial cultivation of cannabis, in a hope to create more jobs and revenue.
In the USA, a lot of states favour only big businesses by selective licensing and rules like mandatory vertical integration, giving small farmers no space to succeed. In Florida, 65% of all legal marijuana businesses are owned by just 5 companies. In Tamil Nadu, TASMAC (Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation) which has a monopoly in selling alcohol, hadn’t allowed any Indian-made wine to be sold in the state until it recently let Sula in this year. TASMAC has been constantly accused of favouring the big brands and blocking others. Sounds similar and scalable to the national level, doesn’t it?
Look at the alcohol and tobacco industries. Regulated commercialization hasn’t stopped addiction, deaths, or black marketing. With plenty of misinformation, unaware Indian youth can be expected to turn to cheaper, harmful varieties from the black market even if regulated, quality weed is made available. Even prescription drug abuse involving allopathic and ayurvedic medicines is a grim reality. A system that cannot regulate these medicines being sold without prescriptions for ‘pain relief’, is hardly ready to regulate marijuana.
In India, it is way too difficult to obtain marijuana even for research, which is badly needed in this area. With 7.2 million addicts in the country, the solution has to begin with extensive research.
Adding to the lack of research is the lack of perspective. We consume bhang without limits on Holi. Yet, we scare and reprimand our children for being caught with weed. Just like sex or alcohol, they learn about weed from their friends or the internet which are as misinformed. This denial-based attitude leads to ignorance of clinical addiction until it becomes so bad that it cannot be ignored. Empathy towards addicts needs to extend beyond Narcotics Anonymous. This has to begin at the grassroots level, in schools where, if you were unaware, a lot of children try to get high on whiteners and pain reliever balms. We have set a wrong example with the lack of sensitization about alcohol, so there is little to hope.
India is ready for decriminalization, but maybe not for complete legalization or commercialization of marijuana. Just legal action is not going to change things. Maybe after a decade or so of social and cultural efforts backed by research and tight regulation, we could be ready to realise the dream of being able to buy weed from the neighbourhood chemist.
Snehal is Columnist at GGI.
She is a writer, poet, music aficionado, Oxford comma proponent, and a lot of other things. She also writes on personal finance for 'Qrius Creative Labs'. She has worked as a copywriter, content writer, scriptwriter, creative strategist, and direction assistant at multiple organisations in the past.
Snehal is a graduate from the Bachelor in Mass Media, Advertising from St.Xavier's College, Bombay.