New Delhi: The arrests of actor Rhea Chakraborty and comedian Bharti Singh, and the questioning of many other celebrities for possessing or consuming cannabis — as little as 100 grams in some cases — are still fresh in memory.
But just weeks later, in the 63rd session of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs held from 2-4 December, India has voted to remove cannabis and its resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which placed it in the category of most dangerous drugs, alongside heroin and others.
The move, experts say, is likely to soften India’s stand on the plant drug, possessing or consuming which attracts strict punishment under the current Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act.
But it will have no impact on the current drug laws in India, unless they are amended.
“It is an international convention, which cannot have a direct impact on drug laws in India. It will not be right to say that India’s stance on cannabis has softened,” a senior officer in the Narcotics Control Bureau explained.
“If there are any changes that are to be made in the law regarding cannabis, then it can only happen through an amendment in law. Else, the NDPS Act stands,” the officer said.
The UN convention
India is one of 53 members of the UN Commission on Narcotics Drugs. Twenty-seven of these countries, including the US and many European nations, voted to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, where it is listed alongside opioids like heroin, while 25 countries (including Pakistan and China) voted to retain it, and one member abstained.
For 59 years, a UN statement pointed out, cannabis had been subjected to the strictest control schedules, which even discouraged its use for medicinal purposes. But the decision to remove it from Schedule IV is set to change the way cannabis is regulated internationally.
Cannabis was a part of both Schedule I and IV of the UN’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs — and while drugs in Schedule I can be used for medicinal purposes with state consent, drugs in Schedule IV are strictly controlled and their usage is a criminal offence.
Sources in the Indian government said the country supports the use of cannabis (hemp) for medicinal purposes only.
In 2018, the sources said, a letter was sent from the PMO to the health ministry to determine the benefits of cannabis, which is extracted from hemp/marijuana plants. Its cultivation got legal approval in July 2018 and Uttarakhand became the first state to cultivate hemp on a pilot basis.
According to a government source, cannabis can inflict much less harm compared to other drugs that are listed in Schedule IV of the 1961 convention, and thus it is a welcome move to remove it from Schedule IV.
“Bracketing cannabis and its resin with heroin, and placing them under the same schedule, is not correct. In fact cocaine, which is more harmful than cannabis, is included in Schedule I but not Schedule IV,” the source said.
“The proportion of people coming with a problem of cannabis use is also much smaller. The number of people facing problems of opium use is much higher. It is a good move to delete cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 convention.”
Sanjeev Kumar, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha’s Rajya Sabha MP and lawyer who has handled many cases under NDPS, added: “It is high time we bring cannabis under soft drugs. It will help change the perception towards cannabis that has many medical benefits. It, however, is a long procedure as currently it is at a very premature stage.”
Amendment in law required
Since international conventions do not automatically become part of municipal law in India, removing cannabis from the list of dangerous drugs will require an amendment in law.
Supreme Court advocate Puneet Jain told ThePrint: “If the government wants to regulate use of cannabis for medical purposes, then an amendment will have to be brought in in the Drug and Cosmetics Act. Just like some drugs are available over the counter, some are allowed with prescription. It remains to be seen, how the government will plan to regulate use of cannabis.”
The current NDPS Act is meant to “make stringent provisions for the control and regulation of operations relating to narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances”, among other things.
Under its purview, a wide range of drugs and psychotropic substances, including cannabis, ganja, heroin and opium, are considered illegal. The law, however, does not apply to bhang, another form of cannabis that is consumed through eating or drinking.
The enactment of this law in 1985 can be traced back to the 1961 UN convention, which gave parties a maximum of 25 years to “completely abolish” non-medical use of cannabis, among other things. The NDPS Act has since been amended thrice — in 1988, 2001 and 2014.
The maximum punishment under the Act is death penalty.
Section 20(b)(ii) of the law allows punishment for production, sale, purchase etc. of cannabis. It says anybody caught with a small quantity of the drug can be punished with rigorous imprisonment of up to six months and a fine of up to Rs 10,000.
A “small quantity”, as defined by a central government notification, is 1,000 gm (1 kg) of ganja, a form of cannabis that is smoked.
Section 8 prohibits the cultivation of cannabis, except for medical and scientific purposes. Section 10, however, gives power to the state to regulate use, cultivation, manufacture and possession of cannabis. Section 14 too allows the cultivation of cannabis for industrial purposes with prior approvals from the state.
Section 8(c) of the Act bars production, manufacture, sale, purchase, transportation and consumption of any narcotic drug or psychotropic substances.
(With inputs from Apoorva Mandhani)
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.