Standing ashore the Ganges in PM Narendra Modi’s constituency of Varanasi, if you type ‘bhang lassi near me’ on Google Maps, places that sell marijuana-laced drinks pop up. Most earthenware shops in India sell chillum to smoke up ganja. Talk up saffron-clad babas outside Shiva temples and they’ll show you their beautiful chillums. In Punjab and Himachal, cows behave funny after chewing freely growing cannabis next to kids sent by mothers to pluck the same leaves to put in food.
On the TV sets of the other India though, anchors and citizens have been consumed with self-righteous indignation about the marijuana habits of their film folks.
This happens only in India, that something and its exact opposite is true and exists at the same time. Like marijuana, that’s technically illegal yet freely available.
Multiple reports - be it a 2018 study by German data firm ABCD or a 2017 World Drug Report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime - states that New Delhi and Mumbai are among the 10 cities that consume the most cannabis in the world. This despite India’s sketchy data collection or data from the likes of Varanasi or Mathura where bhang is had freely, perhaps not being counted.
Besides TRP hungry, virtue-signaling media, two reasons explain India’s recent fixation on celebrity cannabis consumption. One is exemplified by the shock of a cousin when I explained she too has taken ‘drugs’ - the bhang she had on Holi. But how is bhang a drug, she innocently asked?
She’s both right and wrong. Here is the second reason: technically it’s legal to eat leaves of the cannabis plant (bhang), illegal to have its resin (charas/hashish) or flower and bud (ganja). So what if the bud contains small leaves or that leaves have resin inside, and that every part of the plant and thus charas, ganja, or bhang, contain the same psychotropic substances that get people high.
This hullaballoo seems Kafkaesque still when you consider that the Indian subcontinent has been consuming cannabis for at least 3000 years. Some even claim that India’s ancient philosophical and mathematical highs were aided by cannabis. Is it any wonder that the most powerful god Shiva, is the patron saint of smoker uppers?
Atharva Veda calls cannabis one of the five most sacred plants of the planet referring to it as a source of happiness, joy giver, and as a liberator. India’s ancient medical system Ayurveda uses cannabis to treat conditions ranging from skin disorders to anxiety.
The inventors of the clay ‘chill’um - India, is already the chill capital of the world with foreigners chilling with highs atop already high hill towns, a ganja chillum warming the unlocked corners of their minds.
A British Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, 1894-1895 noted that to both Hindus and Muslims cannabis is part of their cultural and religious heritage. It’s not surprising then that Karachi consumes more cannabis than Mumbai and Delhi despite intoxication being forbidden in Islam.
Despite this, western infused technicality has confused its open consumption in India since 1985. In 1961 an international treaty created to prohibit the production and supply of narcotic drugs ratified the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and moved cannabis into the hard drug category. India being a signatory muddied waters about its consumption.
In the 1970s, some say alarmed by the hippie, flower-power generation that resisted war and demanded peace and love (oh, their guts), the conservative Nixon government launched a ‘war on drugs’. In 1985 PM Rajiv Gandhi bowed to this US-led global pressure and passed the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act effectively banning the plant, but not it’s leaves. Thus bhang consumption is sort of not illegal but what naga-sadhus smoke up in their chillum, is.
Conspiracy theory abounds about the cannabis plant described in 1938 in the USA as the ‘billion-dollar plant’. That was the time when in the USA, hemp (industrialised cannabis plant) was used to make all kinds of things like paper, essential oil, construction material, and even clothes as it was easy and inexpensive to grow. This the liquor, timber, and plastic industry saw as a threat, encouraging negative media stories against this ‘drug’ and lobbied to ban it.
The facetious ‘war on drugs’ ended when the US moved to ‘war on terror’ early this millennium. Since then, research has grown on the possible uses and benefits of different types of drugs. The findings about marijuana (confirming many made in Ayurveda) are so positive that it has led many states in the US to legalise it. Many western countries have also legalised it.
In India, I have come across people using Cannabis as medicine. A friend with migraine smokes cigarettes with small quantities of charas to get rid of it. Another with an incurable pain in her hand after an accident takes ganja to keep it to bearable levels. One extended the life of his cancer-ridden father with cannabis oil. Yet another keeps her anxieties at bay with it.
Many estimates state that legalising everything to do with the cannabis plant will earn the Indian government thousands of crores in taxes. Considering that we have a religious, right-wing government in power and the poor state of the economy, this would be the perfect time to legalise the plant and join the billions of dollars worth industry developing around this plant.
And without screaming TV anchors, who would really have a problem with it. Most Indians smoke or drink marijuana with dairy products (bhang thandai, bhang lassi) already. It is particularly popular with creative folks like filmmakers (hence this current ‘crisis’), copywriters, musicians, new-age businessmen, journalists, etc. but is equally consumed by everyone else as well, even your chaiwala, safaiwala, or delivery boy.
Yet India – the cannabis capital of the world for thousands of years – has still not scraped the contentious 1985 law allowing news anchors who seem high on the bad kind of drugs to make screaming self-righteousness judgments on an entire film industry while ignoring a pandemic that has killed 100,000 people, tanked the economy and massive farmers’ protests.
Perhaps this is India’s version of the US’ 1970s war on drugs. Today, as then, this war is fought by democratically elected right-wing parties with the help of the media and government institutions that can better use their resources to fight actual drug cases (the menace of meth, cocaine, heroin abuse is horrible in India) then going after a few creative people who harm no one by going high.
Or maybe officials and TV anchors should visit Varanasi, take a dip in the Ganges, drink green bhang lassi, and go and pray to Lord Shiva in the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. They just might have a glimpse of the intuitive, non-technical third eye of the lord. Perhaps then, they will finally learn… to chill.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)