Buckling under US pressure, India banned cannabis while the former colonised our resources and began to sell their goods at huge profits. This bio-piracy must end
Should we hang Rhea Chakraborty for alleged “possession of 59 grams of marijuana (ganja)” in Shiva’s India? The noose may be a stairway to heaven sans the egregious indignation, torture and obloquy. Legally speaking, India’s Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act treats 1 kg or less of marijuana or ganja as a small quantity, pardonable after being fined. Rhea reportedly had 5.89 per cent of that limit and yet she is locked in prison during the COVID-19 lockdown, endangering her life.
Criminalisation of marijuana is a sin committed against our ethos, wisdom of our ancestors and heralds the complete colonisation of India’s mythology, culture and gods. Marijuana is one of the five sacred plants of our civilisation since Atharvaveda. It’s a healing plant, ritually associated with Lord Shiva but thanks to Lord Macaulay’s disciples, India has been weaponised against its own indigenous knowledge and traditions. Meanwhile developed countries, from Switzerland to Canada, have completely or partially decriminalised cannabis. Nevertheless Rhea becomes another sacrificial lamb in the “war against drugs.”
Would the drug enforcement agency then arrest millions of sadhus who possess and use cannabis as part of their worship of Shiva? Since eternity, Benaras has been Shiva’s city and bhang and marijuana have been a sacred part of its culture. The NDPS Act allows for seizure of properties where the “drugs” are used, so would the Government also seize the entire Kumbh Mela ground in Allahabad as year after year millions of Naga sadhus have openly consumed and stored marijuana (possibly more than 59 grams)? Meanwhile, NCB may also arrest thousands of dying cancer patients who are using cannabis-based medicines illegally in India.
Chasing the cannabis dollar
But our neighbours are neither irreverent nor sluggish. Pakistan, in a progressive move to boost its economy by $2 billion, has legalised industrial hemp and cannabis. Nepal MPs have appealed for its legalisation. Bhutan is already in a joint venture mapping out its marijuana genetic diversity and China is way ahead with a dedicated R&D department and thousands of acres under cultivation. The US cannabis industry has reported a 40 per cent jump in sales as by December 2020, the cannabis dollar wave may hit $15 billion in the US alone.
We must also revisit 1985, when the US government, led by the then President Ronald Reagan, held a gun to India’s head and said, “Ban it or we shoot.” Buckling under US pressure, India, Nepal and other countries had to forcefully ban cannabis and allow for appropriation of our seeds, biological heritage and culture. As compensation, India pleaded for the exclusion of bhang due to its religious significance. In 15 years, using the ban as cover, the US industrial empire brought itself up to speed, studied every aspect of the plant and began rampant commercialisation. Each part of the plant was genetically modified and as early as 1996, California, despite the international treaty, legalised medical marijuana. While India was still trying to deracinate cannabis from its culture, the “American East India Company” had successfully colonised our cannabis resources and began to sell their goods to India and the world at huge profit margins.
In 2020, market reports indicate that the global marijuana industry may touch $100 billion as more countries are opting for legalisation and exports. Israel and Germany are already importing millions worth of medical cannabis flower. But this is only the tip of our iceberg. Marijuana is a super industrial raw material with uses from sustainable clothing to bio-fuel.
And what is India doing about this opportunity? Almost nothing. Progressive states like Odisha and Uttarakhand have taken baby steps but the Central government is reticent without taking into account that India has a vast plant genetic resource (PGR) of the Cannabis Indica varieties. We are threatened by bio-piracy and contamination of our seeds and biological heritage. Illegal under drug control treaty, Marijuana PGR was not covered in the Convention of Biological Diversity. It gave bio-pirates and mafia agents a chance to travel across India and smuggle out our native wealth to private germplasm repositories across the world.
Billions of dollars are being made on R&D based on the sweat of our ancestors and not even a single repository of cannabis germplasm or seed exists in India. Bhang is legally sold in India, yet the private sector has not been allowed to research and conserve cannabis. With a frugal research budget, ICAR or CSIR can’t do this efficiently. So what can the cash-strapped Government do? Perhaps look again towards the US where private industry has soared. US States have filled up their treasuries with the cannabis dollar from Colorado to California. Developing countries like Pakistan, Uruguay, Peru and Thailand are not behind either.
India needs to deregulate hemp (fibrous non-intoxicating variety) for farmers and private industry. The Uttarakhand model should be expanded. Agricultural universities, biodiversity and NGOs should be encouraged to take up conservation, while Indian seed companies should be allowed to set up research stations and given permission to conserve and co-evolve new varieties of both hemp and marijuana. The next step? Create a custom export policy linking the farmers, processors and ports to meet international demand, which is growing every day. This will ensure the cannabis dollar starts coming to India.
India can not only meet the world’s cannabis and hemp demands but also allow our universities and research institutions to tie up with foreign companies for “research and make-in-India” and get the awaited funding.
The full potential of cannabis is hard to gauge but experts believe that very soon marijuana will enter most parts of our economy. It has already been embraced by the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industry and once its full potential is realised, the cannabis dollar may be a trillion dollar high.
Marijuana is deeply embedded in our culture. The West has only recently discovered what our sages and healers have been saying for 5,000 years. We need to bestow sacredness on this plant again. We need to decriminalise personal possession like in many enlightened countries such as Portugal, Peru, Netherlands and so on. This will reduce addiction and illegal smuggling. The Government will also gain a huge revenue boost from it and our children will be saved from the mafia and drug trade. We need to go back to the pre-1985 policy for marijuana. Through legalisation, India can regulate the marijuana trade and provide employment in remote and eco-sensitive zones such as Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Northeast States and so on, boosting the incomes of their farmers, too.
It’s about time our cancer patients and other terminally ill people can receive the benefits of this miracle plant. The cannabis pharma industry can be developed along the lines of the opium pharma sector. The introduction of hemp will also bolster the textile sector and offer an alternative to the ecologically destructive King Cotton.
We need to cast out Anglo-Saxon prudence as America and Britain themselves have embraced marijuana for its sacredness and the cannabis dollar. Rhea and thousands of other people languish in our prisons for personal possessions. It’s about time justice is done and cannabis is decriminalised.
India needs to be safeguarding its traditions and not allow further corporatisation of its resources. Corporations are already patenting products created from PGR from India, when will we wake up and prevent this bio-piracy? Have we not learnt our lessons when neem, turmeric and basmati rice were being patented? Marijuana is a blessing of Shiva for the Indian sub-continent. The lists of benefits of this plant are endless and India’s biological diversity gives us the potential to become leaders, but we go on dishonouring cannabis and along with it our culture and religion.
(The author is Director, Policy and Outreach, National Seed Association of India)