Cannabis is no longer 'dangerous'

The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs in December passed a resolution, supported by India, to remove cannabis (bhang, which is hemp or marijuana) from the category of most dangerous drugs. This has set the stage for this versatile herb to regain its lost status as a lucrative crop for farmers and a valuable raw material for the processing industry. In India, cannabis has historically been grown and consumed for recreational, culinary, and commercial purposes. It enjoys religious sanctity, as also social acceptance, as an intoxicant less harmful than even alcoholic drinks, not to speak of hard drugs like cocaine.

However, cannabis cultivation was banned under pressure, chiefly from the US, by including it in the list of contraband drugs under the Indian Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act in 1985. Though the amended statute permitted state governments to allow controlled and regulated farming of hemp for non-recreational purposes, most states, barring Uttar Pradesh, did not use this provision.

Interestingly, the cannabis issue seems to have come full circle now. The UN, on the recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO), has formally decoupled cannabis from more hazardous and habit-forming drugs like heroin or cocaine. This move has opened the door for gainfully exploiting the therapeutic, industrial, and culinary potential of this flowering shrub. More importantly, it de facto decriminalises production, possession, trade, and value-addition of cannabis products. Consequently, it reduces the scope for penalising or harassing on charges of carrying cannabis, as had recently happened in the case of the mysterious death of a Bollywood actor. The Centre now needs to revisit the local narcotic drugs Act and amend it to reflect the change in the UN bodies’ perception of cannabis.

Significantly, cannabis growers and the prospective investors in the cannabis-based industry have begun to smell a huge opportunity in this field in the domestic and export markets. According to a US consultancy agency, the legal marijuana market may swell globally to $3.6 billion by 2027, clocking an annual growth rate of over 18 per cent. In India, the market for cannabis-based products, including Ayurvedic and other medicinal products, is projected to expand to $120-140 million in this period. Several start-ups and other small industrial units came up in the recent past in anticipation of the opening up of this rewarding field.

The Indian bhang, cannabis indica, and its European version called hemp, cannabis sativa, though broadly similar entities, have some minor variation in their chemical composition and uses. While both of them produce valuable fibre and seed, Cannabis indica is richer in two key intoxicating ingredients called cannabinoids. The first one, known as tetra-hydro-cannabinol (THC), is the primary psycho-active substance (stimulant) that gives the “high” sensation to the consumer. The other one, called canna-bi-diol (CBD), is less potent and is used widely in medicines because of its therapeutic traits.

The stuff made by dehydrating flowers and leaves of cannabis normally goes by names like charas, ganja, or bhang in India, and marijuana, weed, pot, or dope in other countries. In fact, charas and ganja are also often used to prepare a popular drink (beverage or sherbet) called bhang. The resin produced from the fresh leaves and flowers through grinding is often called hash or hashish. The stems of the plants contain fibres which are used by rural craftsmen for making ropes, fabrics, and some useful handicraft items.

Literature on the therapeutic value of cannabis shows that it can cure glaucoma, check the spread of cancer to other parts, slows the progress of Alzheimer, lowers anxiety, and perks up metabolism to convert the consumed food into energy. Some studies associate it even with improvement in brain’s creativity.

Significantly, Himachal Pradesh, known for its good-quality cannabis products, has come forward to tap the economic potential of this herb for the benefit of farmers and other entrepreneurs. Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur announced in this year’s Budget speech on March 11 that controlled cultivation of cannabis would soon be legalised. The Mallana Valley in Kullu district is world-famous for its cannabis resin, a kind of hashish, made by rubbing the plant leaves between the hands. This product commands premium prices in India and abroad. The producers of the Mallana resin are demanding the Geographical Indications (GI) tag for this product under the International Intellectual Property Protection regime. But it is quite unlikely that the production of such stimulants would be encouraged as a matter of state policy. Officially, the legalisation of cannabis cultivation would be meant only to promote commercialising cannabis’ non-recreational products.

Nevertheless, Himachal Pradesh is setting an example for others to follow. The Centre, too, needs to create a legal regime conducive to the rehabilitation of cannabis. Only then can cannabis emerge as a remunerative crop for farmers, valuable raw material for craftsmen and entrepreneurs and a source of revenue for the government by charging a tax on its cultivation.

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