Sunday, February 1, 2015

Cannabis / Ganja in India

I saw these cannabis leaves in the flower market at Chhatarpur. It was "Shravan Somwar", a Monday in the Shravan (monsoon) month. This day is dedicated to Lord Shiva, so probably the leaves were in the market for worshippers to offer at the temple. It is currently illegal to cultivate cannabis (except by special license, for medical / restricted use).
Cannabis leaves, Chhatarpur Flower Market, Delhi
In India cannabis grows wild in the Himalayan foothills. While cool high altitudes are ideal, it is a very adaptable plant, and I've seen it growing wild in the Thar desert. It even grows well in the warm and moist lands of south India (as you can see from the photo below). 
Ganja confiscated in Tamil Nadu by police, photo by The Hindu
Although cannabis cultivation is illegal now, it was not always so. Under Mughal rule, cultivation of marijuana was not restricted, and cannabis was grown throughout the country. People often grew it in their homes, or just collected it from places where it grew wild. 

The British decided to control and tax cannabis (good source of income!). So they passed an act in 1881, allowing cultivation only under license. Imports were restricted, and everything that was grown in India was put in bonded government warehouses. From there, it was sold to licensed vendors after duty had been imposed and levied. Thus the government coffers were enriched by something which was otherwise widely and cheaply available. 

In 1893, to study and understand the effects of cannabis better (and under pressure from the Temperance movement in Britain), the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission was formed. The commission investigated the usage of cannabis in India, and produced a 3000+ page report in 1894, after interviewing and studying responses from 1,200 "doctors, coolies, yogis, fakirs, heads of lunatic asylums, bhang peasants, tax gatherers, smugglers, army officers, hemp dealers, ganja palace operators and the clergy". 
Some of the people studied by the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission
The first thing that emerged from the study was how widespread and common the usage of cannabis was.

Fakirs with their evening preparations of ganja and bhang
© Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK

In Delhi, the IHDC observed that "both the rich and the poor among Hindus indulge in this narcotic, whereas only the lower class of Muhammedans partake of it. The habitual indulgers are to be found in saises (horse handlers), dhobis (washermen), faquirs (holy men), labourers, kahars (palanquin bearers), and halalkhors (sweepers / scavengers). They may be found in groups of 20 or 30 from three to five in the afternoon in the Kerdun Shuraf, Panch Kua, Eed Ghar or on the banks of the Jumna, clubbing together for a smoke [costing] from a dumrie to a pic (low value copper coin) or two. The pipe is passed round until they become merry or angry and too often quite intoxicated. Brahmins (priests), mahajuns (merchants) and bunyas (traders) generally smoke charas at their own houses every day in the afternoon." 

After extensive study, the Committee finally concluded that "the moderate use of hemp drugs is practically attended by no evil results at all." They also acknowledged the plant's usage for medicinal / therapeutic reasons. 

I found it very interesting to read this summary of the Commission's findings:

"Viewing the subject generally, it may be added that the moderate use of these drugs is the rule, and that the excessive use is comparatively exceptional. The moderate use practically produces no ill effects. In all but the most exceptional cases, the injury from habitual moderate use is not appreciable. 

The excessive use may certainly be accepted as very injurious, though it must be admitted that in many excessive consumers the injury is not clearly marked. The injury done by the excessive use is, however, confined almost exclusively to the consumer himself; the effect on society is rarely appreciable. 

It has been the most striking feature in this inquiry to find how little the effects of hemp drugs have obtruded themselves on observation. The large number of witnesses of all classes who professed never to have seen these effects, the vague statements made by many who professed to have observed them, the very few witnesses who could so recall a case as to give any definite account of it, and the manner in which a large proportion of these cases broke down on the first attempt to examine them, are facts which combine to show most clearly how little injury society has hitherto sustained from hemp drugs

It sounds as if the Commission, after all its investigations, decided that the whole cannabis thing was quite harmless :) See full report here if interested.

But the Commission's report was ignored, and cannabis has since then continued to be treated as a dangerous drug. In 1925, India became a party to the International Opium Convention, which also contains provisions relating to the international control of cannabis, its derivatives and preparations.

Currently there's a piece of legislation called the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, which came into effect in 1985. Under this act, it is illegal for anyone in India to produce/cultivate, possess, sell, purchase, transport, store, and/or consume any narcotic drug or psychotropic substance, cannabis included. In 2014, this law was amended to allow some medical exceptions.  But for the large part, it is illegal to cultivate cannabis, and any attempts are met with raids and confiscations.

In spite of the law, there is still cultivation taking place, mostly illegally. There is wide social acceptance of cannabis due to cultural reasons (being associated with Shiva) and also due to its long standing and well established therapeutic properties (it is used in traditional medicine).

There are three forms of cannabis drugs in India - Bhang, Ganja and Charas.

Bhang Lassi, in Jaisalmer
Bhang is made from the dried matured leaves of the cannabis plant. The narcotic principle is best when the plant is mature, so leaves are plucked at the peak flowering time. Generally in the plains they harvest in summer (May and June). In the hills, July and early August are the collection time. The dried leaves are then sold in the market. To make bhang, a paste of the leaves is made, and then mixed with something nice to make it edible. For example, cold milk or yoghurt and spices are commonly added to make a bhaang lassi. But the sadhus and babas who are used to this stuff on a regular basis often just chew the leaves (especially when on the move and when they have no time or proper location to make any preparations).

Unlike bhang, Ganja is smoked, not eaten or drunk. Ganja is made from the dried flowering tops of female plants and twigs, so during the cultivation process, the male staminate are clipped by a 'ganja doctor' (yes, I kid you not, there is such a guy!). The ganja doctor is a guy who has expertise in identifying male/female flowers, he goes through the field cutting down all male staminate to ensure that there is no fruiting.

Charas is a sort of resin which is secreted by the leaves, young twigs, bark of stem and even the young fruit of the female cannabis plant. Indian varieties don't yeild much resin. In pre-British days, excellent charas came from China, from what is called Chinese Turkestan. It was one of the important items of trade between central Asia and India. But that trade has ended, and now if you want good charas, you have to go looking for it in the remote hill villages of Himachal Pradesh, where they make a hand-pressed version that is said to be among the best in the world.


Janis R said...

Very interesting , Deepa. Sounds like India is ahead of the US. It's medicinal benefits cry out for legalization here. Certainly less harmful than tabbaco I believe.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Indian charas / hash is pretty good, and it is not true, there is no resin, it depends on the climate/region. On the whole the article seems fair.

Sanjay said...

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Vikram said...

Cannabis cultivation is fairly common in Himalayan region, part of colder climate life sytle I guess. Though its fairly limited per household. I didn't know one could actually get a license for it. Great trivia info about the British...

Septachon said...

As you wrote, there is wide social acceptance of cannabis from way back; Lord Shiva is associated with it. In spite of US pressure with its ban of cannabis since the 1920s...

The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 (an international treaty developed with USA lead) places the same restrictions on cannabis cultivation that it does on opium cultivation. Each nation was to establish a government agency to control cultivation. Cultivators were to sell and deliver their total crop to the agency. The agency then has the exclusive right of "importing, exporting, wholesale trading and maintaining stocks other than those held by manufacturers."

During the 1970s in Kanpur, the government licensed shops to dispense products like afeem, ganja, charas, bhang. One such shop was at the entrance of IIT Kanpur.

With increasing US funds spent on the War on Drugs, India passed a new law in 1985 and closed said shops. However... From the NATIONAL POLICY ON NARCOTIC DRUGS AND PSYCHOTROPIC SUBSTANCES, Art. 21.
Bhang is a preparation made from cannabis leaves consumed in parts of India on some festivals. As it is not made from cannabis resin or from flowering tops, it is not covered under the NDPS Act, 1985. Production and sale of Bhang is permitted by many State Governments. Whoever is so licenced to produce Bhang shall be allowed to produce it from the leaves of the wildly grown cannabis plants only. They shall not use the flowering tops or the resin produced from the plants. If anyone is found mixing with Bhang any part of flowering tops or the resin produced from the cannabis plants, he shall be punishable under relevant provisions of the NDPS Act, 1985 and if he happens to be a licensee, his license shall also be cancelled.
Reads strange? Even the Board felt compelled to add in Appendix 9.2 that it is aware that there are cannabis products on the illicit drug market called “Bhang” containing the flowering or fruiting tops of the cannabis plant, in addition to the leaves.

Then again, the rule of law, Indian style, also has millions of sadhus, including others, who smoke cannabis openly - Youtube has many clips on them. There are also constitutional ammendments that have been increasingly passed by different states in the USA to remove this ban on cannabis, which has sent over 100,000 people a year to jail along with tainting them forever with criminal records and so locked out of many federal benefits.

Qamar Rehmani

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Unknown said...

How to get license for growing this?
What is the process?

Mario Brendan said...

Cannabis has a long history of use in India and is deeply intertwined with the country's cultural and spiritual traditions. Despite being illegal in many parts of the world, cannabis is still widely used in India for recreational and medicinal purposes. It will be interesting to see how the legal status of cannabis in India evolves in the coming years.