Till 1985, the recreational use of marijuana was not a criminal offence in India. The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985, was brought in to fulfil India’s international obligations as a signatory to Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. Last week, India voted — along with a significant majority of member-states — at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from the list of the most dangerous drugs. By doing so, the government has rightly signalled that the criminalisation of the recreational and medicinal use of cannabis must be done away with. It must now follow through with an amendment to the NDPS Act that reflects the spirit of its vote at the CND.
The rationale for the legalisation of marijuana goes far beyond the legalities of India’s international obligations. Culturally, marijuana has been a part of India’s religious and social fabric, used for medicinal purposes, in cuisines, at festivals and, of course, recreationally. As recently as 2019, the ‘Magnitude of Substance Use in India’ report found that “about 2.8 per cent of the population (3.1 crore individuals) reports having used any cannabis product within the previous year”. That such a large number of people willingly admitted to using cannabis products in a government survey should signal both the prevalence and acceptability of the substance. Criminalising the use of such a widespread substance — one whose effects on mental and physical health have been proven to be far less harmful than legal stimulants like alcohol and tobacco — only serves to burden an overworked criminal-justice system and, in many cases, gives undue powers to police agencies like the Narcotics Control Board. The NCB’s “crackdown” on celebrities in the wake of the Sushant Singh Rajput case has shown the high-handedness with which the NDPS Act can be wielded.
As with alcohol and tobacco products, the use of cannabis must be regulated, taxed and monitored. Addiction, when it occurs, must be treated as and for what it is — a mental health issue. The international conventions which forced the promulgation of the NDPS Act were, in many ways, an off-shoot of the US’s “war on drugs” which began in the 1960s. After decades of incarcerating its own people, a majority of Americans voted recently to legalise cannabis. There is no need for the world’s largest democracy to repeat the oldest democracy’s mistakes.
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