A sadhu in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
MIKE TYSON, AFTER becoming the youngest heavyweight boxing champion and legend, spiralled into a journey of self-destruction, going through life in a maze of drugs, alcohol and sex. To listen to him now, in the podcasts that he appears on and even the one he himself hosted, is to listen to someone who indulged the full extent of his depravities to arrive at a philosophical appreciation of life through regret, religion and family. He is candid about his past and is wont to repeat that he was an addict. Yet, while he has nothing good to say about cocaine or other hard drugs, it might come as a little surprise that a recent business venture is of marijuana—he has a farm cultivating it. Marijuana, according to him, makes him a better human being (he stopped taking it lately only because he is making a comeback fight that needs him to be aggressive). It is not even a narcotic but a medicine in his reckoning. In an interview to Cannabis & Tech Today last year, he was quoted: ‘“I’ve been fighting for over 20 years, and my body has a lot of wear and tear,” Tyson explained. “I had two surgeries and I used marijuana to calm my nerves, and it would take the pain away … But before, they had me on those opiates, and those opiates had me all screwed up.” He wholeheartedly believes that cannabis can help people move away from opioid addiction.’ Tyson echoes what the world is increasingly getting round to. In the US, marijuana used to be illegal, but now a majority of states allow its consumption with a medical prescription. And in 11 states, you can even buy it off the counter.
India remains in an odd in-between relationship with it. For much of history, marijuana or cannabis or hemp or pot or weed or grass or ganja or charas or bhang, as its synonyms and derivatives go, was no more or less a taboo than alcohol. The Atharva Veda, whose date goes as far back as 1000 BCE, lauds it in a hymn. ‘The five kingdoms of plants, having Soma as their chief (çréstha), we address; the darbhá, hemp, barley, sáha—let them free us from distress.’ Periodic glowing references keep occurring in Indian scriptures. The God Shiva is a consumer, giving it legitimacy for lakhs of ascetics across the country to openly smoke it. In the injunctions—the five silas—that Buddha gives his followers, the last one is to never be intoxicated. In the community of itinerant sanyasis that he belonged to and set up a branch of, it was marijuana that was the usual intoxicant. While the Buddha might have considered it an obstacle to spiritual progress, his very proscription shows how regular its consumption was, otherwise why make a specific rule for it? Its concentration enhancing property has been tapped elsewhere too, besides religion. In engineering colleges, students study after a joint. In the US, many in the Brazilian jiu-jutsu martial art community use it as an aid for sparring.
For much of history, marijuana or cannabis or hemp or pot or weed or grass or ganja or charas or bhang, as its synonyms and derivatives go, was no more or less a taboo than alcohol. The God Shiva is a consumer, giving it legitimacy for lakhs of ascetics across the country to openly smoke it
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Towards the end of the 19th century, the British, surprised at its prevalence in the land that they now ruled, considered the question of whether marijuana was good for India. They set up a commission that looked comprehensively at its use and effects across the subcontinent and produced a massive report of over 3,000 pages stretching over eight volumes. It found for no great harm ensuing from it unless abused. Called ‘Physical, Mental, and Moral Effects of Marijuana: The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report’, the late Tod Mikuriya, an American psychiatrist who was lifelong campaigner for legalisation of marijuana, summarised its conclusions that said: ‘In regard to the physical effects, the Commission have come to the conclusion that the moderate use of hemp drugs is practically attended by no evil results at all…Speaking generally, the Commission are of opinion that the moderate use of hemp drugs appears to cause no appreciable physical injury of any kind. The excessive use does cause injury. As in the case of other intoxicants, excessive use tends to weaken the constitution and to render the consumer more susceptible to disease…In respect to the alleged mental effects of the drugs, the Commission have come to the conclusion that the moderate use of hemp drugs produces no injurious effects on the mind…It is otherwise with the excessive use. Excessive use indicates and intensifies mental instability…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.’
Marijuana easily wove into cultures, India being one the earliest. How did it become a social evil then? Studies have shown greater accidents of people driving cars after taking it. That is, however, also true for alcohol but it does not nearly lead to film actors being arrested or interrogated for allusions to weed in WhatsApp chats. Long-term use of marijuana, some studies say, could lead to psychiatric issues but the science is not conclusive and there is plenty of debate over it. Meanwhile, no one differs about what hard drugs do to the body and brain over the long term. A few years of cocaine or opiates is guaranteed to hollow an addict out from the inside. In fact, one of the main arguments against marijuana is not about the damage it will do but that it can be a gateway to worse drugs or cigarette consumption. Tobacco, clearly recognised as a killer, remains legal. Marijuana’s main problem is, therefore, one of categorisation—being bundled into the term narcotic. After a tweak in Indian narcotic laws in the 1980s, it became legally solidified. That is what has given the Narcotic Control Bureau the basis for its current investigation against the Bollywood actors. India, however, merely reflected the world back then when marijuana became decidedly criminal. Since then, the world has re-evaluated. One of the fallouts of that has been a tremendous legal market.
The Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy recently came out with a study on what India loses out by not decriminalising marijuana and how it even impacts the non-narcotic parts of the plant. Its report, as paraphrased in their website, said: ‘Despite the historical use of cannabis as a fibre, India contributes a mere 0.001% to the world market for hemp products, which is pegged at $4.7 billion today. The prohibitionist environment created by the NDPS (Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances) Act, 1985 prevents India from effectively contributing to the world hemp market. As the world cannabis market is estimated to go up to $15.8 billion by 2027, restrictive policies in India continue to act as barriers to economic gains. Over three crore people in India consume cannabis. India loses precious revenue by criminalising a substance, which is this ubiquitously used. A study found that in 2018, New Delhi and Mumbai consumed 38.26 metric tonnes and 32.38 metric tonnes of cannabis respectively. It estimated that around 725 crore could be raised in Delhi if cannabis is taxed. This number was pegged at 641 crore for Mumbai.’ As cannabis companies in the Western world go for IPOs and scale, entrepreneurs in India, which has abundant natural ability to grow the plant and exploit its commercial potential, are left staring at the opportunities being lost.
While Mike Tyson has nothing good to say about cocaine or other hard drugs, it might come as a little surprise that a recent business venture of his is marijuana—he has a farm cultivating it. Marijuana, according to him, makes him a better human being. It is not even a narcotic but a medicine in his reckoning
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Imagine if alcohol had never existed and suddenly someone invented it in 2020. The government notices accidents of drunk drivers go up. Wife beatings increase and the poorest often go blind because of spurious liquor. All the things that do happen now. What would be the response? It would declare alcohol a narcotic. It would criminalise its use. But because of alcohol’s long history with mankind, it remains stubbornly legal and governments participate in its commerce, many states in India surviving mainly on liquor sales. Why treat marijuana any different when its social effects are far milder?
The actors now being investigated, even if found guilty, are participants in a crime that has no punishment. All they need to do to go free is say they are addicts and will take help. As an Indian Express article explained after quoting a section of the NDPS Act, ‘In simple terms, if a person is caught smoking weed, he can get immunity from prosecution by undergoing treatment for de-addiction…An NCB official, however, clarified that the immunity can be applied for only once a chargesheet is submitted by the prosecuting agency. It does not have a bearing during the process of investigation.’ The sole reason they can be publicly humiliated is because the Narcotics Control Bureau chooses to for whatever ends it is pursuing. India has no choice but to accept the inevitability of marijuana becoming mainstream as has happened in other progressive nations. How would people then look back on the present when the entertainment world has been terrified into a McCarthyite submission by a drug that was not?