India reluctantly banned cannabis in 1985 under pressure from US, causing a rise in crime and drug addiction in a country that considered cannabis use a part of life for thousands of years.
NEW DELHI, INDIA — Until 1985, when Indian government bowed to US pressure under the Reagan administration’s War on Drugs, cannabis use was the norm in India. All derivatives of the plant, most commonly hashish and bhang, were sold legally, often in state government run shops.
And this wasn’t just a radical hippie holdover from the 60’s and 70’s — cannabis use has been a part of Indian life for thousands of years.
Recreational cannabis use was never taboo in India — if anything, it was regarded as a “poor man’s intoxicant” by the wealthy and elite upper class, who preferred alcohol or opiates.
In the middle ages, soldiers would often drink bhang before entering battle.
Religious use of the plant was another story, as rich and poor alike found spiritual guidance and enlightenment by sharing vassals of bhang much like modern day Catholics share communion wine. Bhang in India is still distributed as a religious offering during Shiva festivals like “Mahashivratri” and has become virtually synonymous with the Holi festival, to the point where consuming bhang at that time is a standard practice despite the governmental prohibition of cannabis.
So what changed? Why, after thousands of years of harmonious life with legal cannabis, did the Indian government decide to outlaw the cannabis plant?
Since the early 1960’s, the United States campaigned to ban the world-wide use and cultivation of all drugs, hard and soft, from cocaine to cannabis. In it’s many forms — ganja, charas, hasih, bhang — cannabis use in India was so widespread, integrated into daily life without taboo or prejudice, that the country was able to resist cannabis prohibition for almost 25 years as the Indian government opposed the United State’s oppression of organic drugs.
But then, in 1985, the Indian government succumbed to mounting pressure from the United States. To help India comply with treaty obligations to the United States and United Nations, The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPSA) was enacted, which banned cannabis and over 200 other substances.
The NDPSA grouped all drugs together, with any violations of the act resulting in a 10 year mandatory minimum sentence.
Cannabis use in India dropped slightly as a result of the Act, but the decline in use came at a huge price.
Heroin and cocaine, which had previously seen little to use in India, suddenly became popular, causing a new problem never before seen on a large scale in the country: drug addiction. This new drug addiction became the fuel for rising crime and theft in India’s cities, as prohibition drove prices of narcotics higher and higher, while dependency increased demand.
The risk and consequence for selling marijuana, cocaine, heroin or other drugs was the same, but profits from sales of harder drugs were much higher. As more peddlers turned to selling hard drugs, addiction rose even more.
The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act had created a drug problem within the country, when previously there had been none.
But in order to maintain relations with the United States, who’s drug policy involvement in cannabis, coca and opium producing countries can not be underestimated, cannabis prohibition in India has been upheld for 27 years.
But now that parts of the United States have relaxed their drug policies, it may be time for India to evaluate theirs.
In some ways, India already has. The original 10 year mandatory minimum sentence for cannabis possession has since been relaxed, and some cannabis use is tolerated by the government, but only if it can be proven that jut the leaves and seeds, not the forbidden buds, of cannabis plants are being used. Cultivation of cannabis is not permitted, but the natural wild growth of the plant is is widespread nationwide.
Following the elections this past week that legalized marijuana use in Colorado and Washington, many in India feel it is time to return to a way of life that prevailed for thousands of years but has been repressed for the past quarter-century.
Cannabis use is prevalent everywhere, from the South Pacific islands to Russian steppes, mining communities in the Canadian wilds to Brazilian favelas and from the Himalayas to the Congolese Blue Mountains.
But for India, it is a way of life, existing peacefully for thousands of years. And having been among the last countries in the world to align with the failed drug policies of the United States, the damage is still reversible.