For 1,000 years or so, cannabis has been widely cultivated and consumed in South Asia, not only for medicine, food and fibre, but also for recreational and spiritual purposes, in the form of bhāṅg, caras and hashish. In some regions of the Himalayas you can still see cannabis growing wild and abundantly as far as the eye can see.
According to a recent study by a German data firm (ABCD), out of 120 global cities, Delhi has the third highest consumption of cannabis in the world, ahead of Los Angeles, Chicago and London; Mumbai is sixth. In India, consumption is highest in Delhi and in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Sikkim and Chhatisgarh. 31 million Indians were reported to have used a cannabis product in 2019. Cannabis is currently cultivated in 400 of India’s 670 districts (Acharjee 2020).
Cannabis becomes illegal in Myanmar, India and Nepal
Controls on possession of cannabis began in Burma (Myanmar) in the 1820s. In India, first in Berar, a system of taxation on cannabis was instituted in 1897, which raised a vast amount of money for the British Treasury (Mills 2012: 110, 130–136). The cultivation and sale of cannabis without a government licence was initially prohibited in the United Provinces in India in 1910 (Hasan 1975:237). In Nepal all licences for cultivation were rescinded in July 1973 (Fisher 1975:253).
After a conference held in The Hague, cannabis first became illegal internationally in 1924 (Mills 2012; 2013). However, the restriction was not fully implemented in India until 1985, when penalties for its use and sale were introduced by the Indian government, ironically due to pressure mostly from representatives from the USA and Canada, which countries now have legalized (Canada) or partly legalized (USA) the recreational use of cannabis.
Before 1985, the maximum penalty in India for selling cannabis without a licence was 300 Rupees (equivalent to about $12). Throughout 1985, penalties were incrementally increased. By 1986 the penalty for possessing 100 grammes of cannabis had risen to a recommended penalty of ten years in jail. However, as noted above, despite criminalisation, cannabis is still being cultivated in around 60% of India’s districts.
An Indian NGO, the Great Legalisation Movement (GLM), which was founded in Bangalore in 2014, is currently petitioning the High Court in Delhi to remove cannabis from the 1985 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, claiming that it is “arbitrary, unscientific and unreasonable” (Sinha and Fogla 2020).
Legal anomalies in India
Owing to special pleading since the 1920s by Indian representatives at UN conventions on the control of (dangerous) substances, because of the fairly widespread use of cannabis in parts of north India, the lower and less potent lower leaves of the cannabis plant, which are used to make bhāṅg, remain legal (and still available from state-regulated shops), while the (upper) female buds of the plant (gāñjā), used for smoking and for making cannabis resin (caras and hashish) are illegal. However, at a typical government bhāṅg shop in north India, such as in Banaras, bhāṅg is sold legally over the counter, while smokable gāñjā is discreetly sold under the counter. Only in the Indian state of Orissa is gāñjā still legal.
Even though the recreational use of cannabis was outlawed in India in 1985, under Section 10 of the Indian Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS)—though, as noted above, there are anomalies—state governments of India retained the authority to license the cultivation of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes (Sathguru 2020). However, it was not until 2017 that these permissions were acted upon.
Decriminalization of cannabis: Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh
In 2017, the first licences were granted by an Indian state government for the commercial production of low-THC (less than 0.3%) cannabis for industrial purposes—primarily to produce fibre for the textile industry—in Uttarakhand (Utttaranchal). The state government granted licences for farming, storage, sales and transport to the Indian Industrial Hemp Association (IIHA) to run a pilot scheme to grow cannabis for fibre in an area of 1,000 hectares. The IIHA contract runs for five years, at the end of which the production site is scheduled to increase to 10,000 hectares (Kukreja 2019).
The global hemp industry is expected to expand from 4.6 billion USD in 2019 to 26.6 USD by 2025. New, start-up hemp companies in India include the Bombay Hemp Company (BoHeCo), Health Horizons, Foxxy, Hempsters, Vedi, GreenJams, HempStreet and NHempCo, who are collaborating with each other to develop products such as hempcrete, cosmetics, biofuels and hemp paper for the domestic market. Hemp Foundation is working in Uttarakhand to explore both wild and domesticated varieties of cannabis for low-THC plants (Sinha and Fogla 2020; Sathguru 2020).
In 2018, the government of Uttar Pradesh has granted permission for farmers to grow cannabis for medical uses (Mirrornownews 2018). Uttar Pradesh is the first state in which official research and development is being conducted into the CBD and THC content of varieties of cannabis plants (Himachal Watcher 2019).
In November 2019, Madhya Pradesh, the second largest state in India, legalized the cultivation of cannabis for medical and industrial purposes (News 18, 2019; Sinha and Fogla 2020).
States in the north-east
Across large swathes of land in the north-eastern Indian states of Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur both cannabis and opium grow abundantly. The state of Manipur, which has some of the best weed in India, is also pursuing hemp business. Currently, many cannabis plantations in the state are controlled by extremist groups. However, in pursuit of legal and taxable business, the government of Manipur has identified thirty-nine entrepreneurs as eligible for a grant to start commercial cannabis production for both industrial and medical applications (Karmakar 2019; Samom2019). Arunachal Pradesh is also in the process of legalizing cannabis production (News 18, 2019).
In 2019, in Himachal Pradesh, lengthy deliberations took place in the High Court in Shimla, the state capital, in answer to a legal petition for Himachal Pradesh to enact legislation similar to that passed in the neighbouring Himalayan state of Uttaranchal (News 18, 2019; Himachal Watcher 2019). In some places in Himachal, such as around the high-altitude village of Malana, already renowned for its high quality caras, foreign seeds are now being used to cultivate high-THChybrid plants (Sharma 2020). Discussions have recently taken place about the possibility of exploiting Himachal’s high-THC plants for medicinal purposes (Cannabis Law Report 2020).
Before 1973, when cannabis cultivation was outlawed in Nepal, the country was renowned for its abundant, high-quality caras. Current Nepalese legislation on cannabis stems from the Narcotics Drugs Control Act of 1976, which stipulates three years in prison and a fine of 25,000 Rupees ($210) for cultivation and a prison term of up to ten years for trafficking.
On 27th January 2020, a joint motion was presented to the government in Kathmandu for legalisation, particularly for medical applications. The development of cheap, locally developed medical products would be welcome in a country with a relatively poor rural population (Joshi 2020). The new bill—the Cannabis Farming (Management) Act—proposes a system for granting licences in seven districts and permitting householders to grow up to six plants without a licence (Adhikari and Shiwakoti 2020; Budhathoki 2020; Zyl 2020).
Medicinal cannabis in India
The Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine (IIIM) and the India Council of Medical Research (ICMR) have recently been granted licenses to cultivate cannabis for medical and scientific research, particularly for the treatment of epilepsy and cancer. Companies in the state of Jammu and Kashmir will be the first to develop medicines from the cannabis plant. On February 1st 2020, the first medical cannabis clinic in India, the Vedi Wellness Centre, opened in Bangalore (Sinha and Fogla 2020).
Current controversy in India
In 2020, the suicide of the actor Sushant Singh Rajput on June 14th in Mumbai led to the arrest in the first week of September of his girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty, her brother Showik and ten others, for alleged possession, transportation and purchase of small quantities of gāñjā and caras. They are all being implicated in his “drug-related” death. This case has blown up into a national controversy about the over-zealous action of the police and the relative dangers of cannabis use. Several commentators have pointed out that it is well known that sādhus have been openly using cannabis for hundreds of years for spiritual purposes, without any suggestion that they might commit suicide as a consequence.
Currently, despite the legalization of cannabis in several Indian states for medical and industrial uses, arguments about the dangers of “drugs” are still very much the focus of the central government in Delhi.
However, the global tide on recreational cannabis use is turning. If full legalisation of cannabis were to be eventually enacted in India, then the use of both the top and bottom parts of the same plant would again become legal.