Cannabis and recent issues
In a decision that could influence the global use of medicinal marijuana, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) voted to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, decades after they were first placed on the list.
• 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.
• Cannabis has been in use in India for over 2,000 years. The Sushruta Samhita, an ancient medical treatise, recommends cannabis plant extract for treating respiratory ailments and diarrhoea. In 1798, the British parliament enacted a tax on cannabis by products to reduce consumption.
The Cannabis plant
According to the WHO, cannabis is a generic term used to denote the several psychoactive preparations of the plant Cannabis sativa. The major psychoactive constituent in cannabis is Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The Mexican name ‘marijuana’ is frequently used in referring to cannabis leaves or other crude plant material in many countries.
Most species of cannabis are dioecious plants that can be identified as either male or female. The unpollinated female plants are called hashish. Cannabis oil (hashish oil) is a concentrate of cannabinoids — compounds which are structurally similar to THC — obtained by solvent extraction of the crude plant material or of the resin.
How does the NDPS Act define cannabis?
According to the NDPS Act “cannabis plant” means any plant of the genus cannabis. The legislation that was enacted in 1985 succeeded the Dangerous Drugs Act, 1930. It was introduced as lawmakers felt that the older legislation that entailed a maximum punishment of up to four years was not strict enough to check drug trafficking.
Under section 2 (iii), the Act defines cannabis (hemp). The sub-sections refer to parts of the plant that come under the purview of the Act.
‘Charas’ is the separated resin extracted from the cannabis plant. The NDPS Act covers separated raisin, in whatever form, whether crude or purified, obtained from the cannabis plant and also includes concentrated preparation and resin known as hashish oil or liquid hashish.
Section 2(iii)(b) of the NDPS Act defines ‘ganja’ as the flowering or fruiting tops of the cannabis plant but it clearly excludes the seeds and leaves, when not accompanied by the tops, by whatever name they may be known or designated. Street names for the drug include ‘weed’ and ‘marijuana’.
The Act also illegalises any mixture with or without any neutral material, of any of the two forms of cannabis – charas and ganja — or any drink prepared from it.
Effect on India
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.
What this could mean for the cannabis industry?
The reclassification of cannabis by the UN agency, although significant, would not immediately change its status worldwide as long as individual countries continue with existing regulations. Still, Wednesday’s vote could impact this process, as many nations follow the lead of international protocols while legislating.
As per drug policy experts, the CND decision would add momentum to efforts for decriminalising cannabis in countries where its use is most restricted, while further legalising the substance in others. Scientific research into marijuana’s medicinal properties is also expected to grow.
There is no doubt that marijuana use has its risks, as do all other substances which affect the brain. One has to be particularly concerned that, with legalisation in wealthy countries, newer hybrid strains of marijuana which contain much higher concentrations of the active ingredient (THC) are beginning to swamp the market.
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.