There are many issues our lawmakers need to discuss in the Winter Session of Parliament, which commenced on Friday. These include the Goods and Service Tax, the Consumer Protection Bill, the National Sports University Bill, The Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill … and reportedly, a private member’s bill to legalise marijuana.
You read that right.
Dharamvir Gandhi, a Member of Parliament from Patiala, is seeking to legalise marijuana possession and consumption in India among other “non-synthetic” intoxicants.
Currently, the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act of 1985 criminalises possession, trade, transport and consumption of cannabis, among other narcotic and psychotropic substances.
A cardiologist by profession, Dharamvir was associated with the Aam Aadmi Party until he was suspended in 2015 along with another MP, Harinder Singh Khalsa, from primary membership for “anti-party activities”.
He moved a private member’s bill to legalise the recreational use of marijuana last year as well, and even earned the support of the late actor and politician Vinod Khanna, a BJP MP at the time, and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) MP from Odisha, Tathagata Satpathy.
Tathagata is well known for his open support for the cause of legalising marijuana. In a 2014 Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) thread, he declared that he had smoked cannabis many times as a college student. “In villages of Orissa, many people openly smoke and, as their representative, I am not entitled to be judgmental,” he had said.
The MP, who is the also the owner and editor of leading Odia daily Dharitri and English daily Orissa Post, is known to voice his views on issues quite unabashedly. Just last year, he even sported a kurta made of hemp fabric to the Lok Sabha.
Both Dharamvir and Tathagata have justified the legalisation of recreational marijuana multiple times in the last couple of years.
Ban on marijuana elitist?
Tathagata has called the criminalisation of cannabis possession and consumption ‘elitist’. In an interview to Deeptiman Tiwary for the TOI, Tathagata said that intoxication has been part of societies globally and mentions of the same can be found in old texts also.
“In Odisha [where cannabis consumption is not illegal], people smoking chillum is a common sight. It is not something you make note of, just as you don't notice someone drinking water or having tea,” he had observed. He added that the problem arises only when an intoxicant is allowed to overpower one’s life; then one should try to get out of it.
Keeping pace with current times
Dharamvir had told Hindustan Times last year that the NDPS Act came into being to meet the UN Conventions on Drug Policy. Tathagata had also mentioned this in his TOI interview. The NDPS Act was also a response to the US placing a ban on cannabis and other drugs.
Calling India the ‘wannabe’ America of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, Tathagata said that cannabis suffered its fate because it was the intoxicant of the poor, and was not seen with the same eye as a wine glass held in the hands of the rich.
About half the states in the US, and at least 16 countries around the world, have since legalised marijuana use, especially for medicinal purposes like “treating chronic pain, nausea after chemotherapy, epilepsy and symptoms of multiple sclerosis”, reported Manu Balachandran for Quartz India.
The changes the private member’s bill proposes in the NDPS Act, therefore, are to separate the clubbing together of ‘soft’ intoxicants with artificial ‘hard’ drugs like cocaine, heroin and smack.
This de-linking has also found support from Romesh Bhattacharji, former Commissioner of the Central Bureau of Narcotics. He had told Debayan Roy from News18 that the NDPS Act been victimising people since 1985 – the year it came into effect.
He quoted data from Punjab between 2001 and 2011, and said that of the 25,003 people behind bars under the NDPS Act, only 10 to 60 people were drug traffickers. The others were merely poor people found possessing soft drugs.
Creation of a drug mafia, harder intoxicants
Dharamvir has argued that the ban and subsequent ‘war on drugs’ resulted in the creation of a drug mafia that supplied more dangerous and potent drugs, like cocaine, that are much more addictive. Due to the hefty profits to be made in the underground drug trade, it has led to rivalries, which then led to gang wars. It has also pushed aggressive marketing, which has led more people to hard drugs.
“Consequently, the petty traditional drug users are turning to the easily available and aggressively marketed, addictive and dangerous street drugs,” Dharamvir told HT. He hoped that the NDPS Act would be amended so that “cheap, regulated and medically supervised supply of traditional and natural intoxicants like ‘afeem’ and ‘bhukki’ (opium)” can be made available. This move, according to him, will push a fewer people towards more dangerous and harmful intoxicants.
Tathagata pointed out in 2015 that the ban on sale and possession of natural and soft drugs, like bhang and cannabis, led people to turn to alcohol. Alcohol has a higher incidence of addiction compared to cannabis – 16% and 9% respectively.
Olga Khan wrote for The Atlantic that the chances of getting addicted to cannabis if you smoke it after you’re 25 years old are “essentially nil” and the withdrawal experienced by those who give up smoking marijuana are also much fewer. The piece, however, warns that most of these studies were conducted during the age of prohibition, when people were not able to get their hands on weed easily, hence skewing statistics.
Time for change?
The most recent person to join the debate for the legalisation of marijuana is Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi. In July this year, she called for the legalisation of marijuana for medicinal purposes. She made the suggestion at a meeting, which scrutinized the National Drug Demand Reduction Policy draft.
Citing the US, she said that legalisation of cannabis for medicinal usage had ultimately resulted in lesser instance of drug abuse. She further told PTI that marijuana should be legalised especially if it helps in treating cancer.