India has had a longstanding history with cannabis that dates back to 2000 BCE. The earliest mention of cannabis has been found in the Vedas, the earliest body of Indian scriptures along with Sushruta Samhita, an ancient Sanskrit treatise on surgery and medicine. It even holds religious importance considered the 'food of the gods' and associated with Lord Shiva. Compared to our 4000-year relationship with cannabis, the criminalization of the drug has not only been fairly recent but also not of our own accord.
Until the 1870s, the colonial attitude towards cannabis had mostly been ambivalent. However, Willliam Sproston Caine, a Baptist and fierce advocate of abstinence and temperance raised a concern at the House of Commons about cannabis due to his perception shaped by missionaries, that disapproved of indigenous religious practices in India. So in 1893, upon Caine’s instigation, the Government of India was instructed to create a committee to look into the cultivation of the hemp plant, the preparation of drugs from it, the trade in those drugs, the social and moral impact of its consumption, as well as potential prohibition.
The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission produced a 3000-page report with testimony from almost 1200 doctors, coolies, yogis, fakirs, heads of mental asylums, bhang peasants, tax gatherers, smugglers, army officers, hemp dealers, ganja palace operators and the clergy. It concluded that moderate use of cannabis "...is practically attended by no evil results, produces no injurious effects on the mind and no moral injury whatsoever." While they couldn't prohibit it, they continued with the taxation that was enacted in 1798 to reduce its consumption.
Skip to the 1960s and 1970s when the flower-power generation of the West flooded to India exploring spirituality and indulging in cannabis that was still very much legal. It was around this time that the Richard Nixon administration launched a ‘war on drugs’ with the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961 that clubbed Marijuana with hard drugs and imposed a blanket ban on their production and supply except for medicinal and research purposes. Both Nixon and Reagan made this war on drugs a major part of their domestic and foreign policy platforms,
despite being largely influenced by racist and elitist narratives.
However, India at this juncture, while being a signatory, did exercise its right to a reservation and requested a temporary permit for the use of cannabis and its extracts for non-medical purposes. But buckling under the pressure from the US and other Western countries, the Rajiv Gandhi government finally enacted the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act in 1985, effectively criminalizing the use of the fruit and flower of cannabis, excluding the leaves that are used to make Bhaang.
India’s laws against weed seem largely to be based on a treaty that has since become null. Several states in the United States have already legalised the use of recreational and medicinal marijuana, giving it a quasi-legal status. Meanwhile, according to a government report, 31 million Indians were reported to have used some form of cannabis in 2018. Despite this it's still considered a punishable offence to partake in India, except when it's Holi or Maha Shivratri.
The irony of our perception of cannabis amazes me. It was the West that imposed this criminalization for political gain, forcing countries like India with a cultural and religious connection to the plant into submission in its war on drugs (which was really a war on race, if we're being honest), and now it's one of the few countries that literally celebrate it, while we are still stuck in someone else's story of what a 'hard drug' is. White people did it again; they came in guns blazing with their hollow virtue, erased our 4000-year-old relationship with a heritage plant and then pulled an Uno reverse on their own treaty.
The criminalization of cannabis in India is yet another colonial symptom of white supremacy that we are having a hard time letting go of. While hemp is emerging as a sustainable resource for rope, textiles, clothing, shoes, food, paper, bioplastics, insulation, and biofuel in India, the fight for the legalization of cannabis as a recreational drug continues.