New Delhi: The Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) arrested actor Rhea Chakraborty Tuesday in a drugs case in connection with the death of her boyfriend and actor Sushant Singh Rajput.
Her bail plea was rejected by a magistrate court and she has been sent to judicial custody until 22 September.
The NCB stated Rhea was “an active member of a drug syndicate”. The NCB’s case hinged on the “discovery of 59 grams of curated marijuana from two men identified as Abbas Lakhani and Karan Arora” and the links they allegedly had with those close to Rajput.
Chakraborty’s arrest has sparked a debate regarding the legal history of cannabis and its byproducts such as weed, hashish and hemp oil, among others.
History of cannabis in India
The consumption of Cannabis — “a group of three plants with psychoactive properties, known as Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis” — in India has been recorded as far back as the early as 5,000-4,000 BC.
Its relaxing and calming effects have made it one of the most commonly used plants, especially for Ayurvedic medicinal purposes, with over 3 crore Indians consuming it, according to the National Survey on Extent and Pattern of Substance Use in India by the Ministry of Social Justice, which was conducted in 2018 and released last year.
Cannabis is the most consumed substance in India, second only to alcohol, and its use was legal until 1984. However, calls for its criminalisation were raised long ago in British India in 1838, 1871 and 1877.
Criminalisation of cannabis in India
India’s ban on drugs was heavily influenced by the US policy on the criminalisation of drugs — linking it to “insanity, criminality and death” and “the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind” among African-American and Hispanic population.
The US was the driving force behind the global prohibition of drugs, which came into effect via the United Nations’ 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which “influenced the enactment of the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, created international obligations to curb traffic, cultivation, use etc. of narcotic drugs, including cannabis”.
The international treaty came into effect on 8 August 1975 and the NDPS Act in 1985, which is when India passed the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act that criminalises cannabis in the form of buds (charas) but allows the sale of bhang — “a byproduct of cannabis that is still heavily consumed on festivals like Holi and Shivratri”.
However, this was not the first law that prohibited drug use in India.
The Opium Act, 1852, The Opium Act, 1878, and The Dangerous Drugs Act, 1930, were already being exercised to control narcotics, but over time their inadequacies came to the fore, owing to “developments in the field of illicit drug traffic and drug abuse at national and international level,” — thus paving the way for the passage of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Bill in Parliament.
The Act has, however, come under scrutiny for being draconian.
Its bail provisions are identical to those of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act and Prevention of Terrorism Act where “an accused person is not to be released on bail unless the court has reasonable grounds to believe that the accused is not guilty and is not likely to commit an offence while on bail”.
Moreover, if an individual is convicted under Section 31A of the NDPS Act, “mandatory death sentence, without the alternative of life imprisonment in the case of a second conviction” was the punishment — until an amendment was made in 2014, when death penalty was made optional.
The economic aspect
The NDPS Act limits India’s contribution to the $4.7 billion hemp market — which is expected to touch $15.8 billion by 2027 — to just 0.001 per cent.
With over 3 crore Indians consuming cannabis, a study by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy found in 2018 that Delhi can raise Rs 725 crore and Mumbai Rs 641 crore if cannabis is taxed.
India’s laws against cannabis are based on an Act that is now nearly redundant, with the US having legalised it for recreational use in 11 states — with others expected to follow suit this year — and for medical use in over 30 states.
Calls for legalising cannabis in India have gained momentum in the past.
Patiala MP Dr Dharamvira Gandhi’s Private Bill that sought the “legalisation of certain intoxicants, such as opium and marijuana”, was cleared by Parliament’s legislative branch in 2016, but is yet to be passed.
The Sikkim Anti-Drugs Act, 2006, — which “does not utilise deterrence to curb drug use and relies on a public health approach to protect the best interests of a drug user” — has been hailed as a “promising indigenous decriminalisation model”.
While the use of cannabis is legal in Uttarakhand for industrial purposes, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh were considering going down the same line but a step in that direction is yet to be taken.