New Zealand, which will go into elections on October 17, will also be holding a referendum to decide whether cannabis should be legalised or not.
If New Zealanders are to vote for legalising cannabis for recreational usage, it would join the likes of countries such as Canada, Uruguay and certain states in the United States where consumption of marijuana is legal. Early poll numbers, from the latest Newshub Reid-Research poll, however, reveal that only 37.9 per cent population support the proposition.
In India, the investigations into Sushant Singh Rajput’s death has thrown open a Pandora’s box of drug abuse in Bollywood. The arrest of actor Rhea Chakraborty by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) over the discovery of 59 gms of curated marijuana seized, and the questioning of lead Bollywood actors such as Deepika Padukone over certain WhatsApp chats which referred to maal and hash, has brought back a much-debated topic - that of legalisation of marijuana.
Also known as Weed, Pot or Ganja, Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the world.
Around 3 crore people use it in India, alone, with Delhi the third-largest cannabis consumer in the world and Mumbai, the 6th largest.
India also grows some of the most sought after varieties of weed in the world – the stunning Parvati Valley in Himachal Pradesh is a Hippie’s paradise, where the hugely popular Malana weed is cultivated. Kerala’s Idukki Gold is renowned as one of the best strains of weed in Asia.
India is no stranger to marijuana, a drug that has been used for thousands of years, dating back as far as 4000 BC. The cannabis plant even finds a mention in the Vedas and is closely associated with Lord Shiva. The drink Bhang or thandai served during Holi is prepared from dried cannabis leaves and milk, with other spices added to it. Bhang is legal in the country and is sold at specific government authorised shops.
Weed also has a connection with Ayurveda, which, while connoted as a toxic substance in Ayurvedic texts, has traditionally been used in medicines. In 2018, the Centre Council for Research in Ayurvedic Sciences in collaboration with Gujarat Ayurved University found that cannabis leaves can be effective in alleviating pain and other symptoms in cancer patients post-chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Further, research is being conducted to develop cannabis-based drugs for the treatment of pain in illnesses such as epilepsy, anaemia and cancer by Council of Scientific and Industrial Research - Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine (CSIR - IIIM) in collaboration with Bombay Hemp Company (BOHECO), a startup which works with industrial hemp.
Following the US footsteps
So, with such religious and historical connections to it, how can the consumption of marijuana be illegal in India?
The recreational usage of marijuana is illegal in India and is governed under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985. Consumption of marijuana is punishable with a jail term of six months or a fine of Rs 10,000, while illegal production and cultivation can be punished with a jail term of up to 10 years.
However, marijuana was legal in India until 1984. It was in the 1960s that the United States launched an offensive against the drug and a drive to ban it. During the 1961 Convention on Narcotics Drugs, India had even opposed the classification of marijuana as a hard drug.
Bucking under pressure, the Rajiv Gandhi administration passed the NDPS Act in 1985 which criminalised cannabis in its resin and bud form, but allowed the sale of bhang at government-approved shops.
Ironically, several states in the United States have now either legalised marijuana or are considering it. In India, various NGOs and activists have been asking for its legalisation. Their argument is that the criminalisation of marijuana has pushed the drug underground and to onto the hands of criminals who make it more potent and dangerous.
Arguments favouring legalising marijuana also say that it could lead to fewer chances of addiction. A study conducted in 1994 by epidemiologist John Anthony who surveyed more than 8,000 people about their marijuana usage, discovered that the chances of getting addicted to the drug were 9 per cent. For alcohol, this figure was 15 per cent, for heroin 23 per cent and for nicotine, 32 per cent.
Legalisation will also help villagers in areas like the Parbati Valley and the upper reaches of Kullu and Manali, and Idukki in Kerala whose main source of income comes from cannabis. Currently, with marijuana being illegal, farmers are forced to sell it to drug peddlers at low prices, and have problems with the police. Those for legalising the drug argue that by making the drug legally available, farmers would benefit from a more regulated market.
Flipside: The harmful effects of cannabis
However, the fact remains that cannabis, when taken recreationally still remains a drug which could have harmful effects on the consumer. While a plant, it contains the mind-altering chemical, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is responsible for the intoxication that people who consume it feel.
The plant also has over 400 other chemicals. Researchers from the University of Alberta have identified potentially toxic chemicals in marijuana smoke which could have health effects. In a single puff of cannabis smoke, researchers have isolated around 110 toxic chemicals which may have carcinogenic, mutagenic or teratogenic effects, which could affect the development of the embryo or foetus.
Research conducted in Pittsburgh has also discovered that children of frequent marijuana users have relatively less attention span than their peers. Early marijuana usage has also been linked to a loss in I.Q levels of pre-teens.
Further, The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study conducted in Dunedin, New Zealand has found that people who smoke even one joint a week are prone to developing respiratory illnesses. Occasional smokers who cut down on weed, also had reduced symptoms, while heavy smokers had a persistent cough and wheeze even after cutting down, or quitting completely. This proves that the side effects of smoking weed on heavy smokers may linger for long.
Those who are against the legalisation of weed are also worried that its usage could prove to be a gateway to other, more potent, hard drugs.
Marijuana, if used responsibly, could help those cultivating it and using it. However, with India already grappling with problems of alcoholism, excessive tobacco usage, much more research needs to be carried out to ensure that the risks do not outweigh the potential benefits.