A “historic” ceremony outside the small suburban village of Kodur transfixed India over the weekend. Announcements were made days in advance, some journalists flew in for the occasion, and police drones circled the blue skies. The police in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh had amassed a year’s worth of seized cannabis: over 200,000 kilograms from 1,363 seizures. Together, they said it was worth over a whooping $66 million. They burned it all.
On Saturday, the red carpet event was filled with thick plumes of smoke as the “first of its kind” stash went up in flames. The images went viral. “It was a spectacle,” admitted Gautam Sawang, the Director General of Police in Andhra Pradesh, who lit one of the piles himself.
Far from the spectacle are tribal farmers who live in remote parts of the Visakhapatnam district, hundreds of miles away from where the seizures and the burning ceremony took place. Many belong to a “Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group”, a government classification for communities that depend on farming or gathering for sustenance, and have little to no access to development.
Over the years, journalists investigating the cannabis trade in the region have reported how the survival of indigenous tribes was closely linked to cannabis cultivation. Police interventions were sporadic, so much so that it seemed allowing the tribes to cultivate cannabis was a part of police strategy, reports said.
But something shifted recently: India’s war on cannabis.
“We wanted to send across a message about the kind of resolve we have taken to curb this menace plaguing the country,” he told VICE World News. “Generally, things happen quietly. But this [ceremony of this scale] was a record of sorts. We wanted people to sit up [and take notice]. It may be dubious but we wanted to send the message across.”
And perhaps a message was sent down the supply chain, where the estimated market value of the $66 million cannabis they burnt, could possibly fetch 13 times more in India’s capital New Delhi, according to the Cannabis Price Index.
At the burning ceremony cops said they added sugar and camphor as “inhibitors”, so the potent smoke doesn't affect the attendees. Photo: Andhra Pradesh Police
Sawang is the face of “Operation Parivarthana” (the Hindi word for change), a so-called war on drugs focusing on unregulated but decades-old cannabis cultivation in the state. While cannabis use is banned except for medical and scientific purposes, its trade is illegal. There is also a stigma on drug use and abuse, where government action tends to punish rather than rehabilitate.
Now running three months, the operation followed years of reports that labelled Andhra Pradesh as the cannabis capital of India, and aims to put an end to it. Over 7,500 acres – 90 percent – of the identified cannabis farms along the state borders have been destroyed so far, according to Sawang.
Those farms are largely in neglected and far-flung parts of India. Many are in what the government calls strongholds of a “Maoist insurgency”, left-wing separatist movements in India.
Some have accused the Maoists of benefiting from the cannabis trade to fuel their armed activities, which they and the tribal communities deny.
Many cannabis farms are located in remote areas and cultivated by members of economically impoverished tribal communities. Photo: Andhra Pradesh Police
“In these pockets, if the Maoists see the police, they can attack,” Paul Oommen, a senior journalist with south India-based The NewsMinute, told VICE World News. “So the police allowed the tribals to cultivate it in exchange for information on the Maoists’ activities, and also to keep them from joining [the armed groups]. But all this backfired when the weed cultivation became an equally big problem, if not more, than the Maoist activities.”
Oommen drew a picture of his excursions into the cascading tracts of cannabis farms that are openly visible but which local communities don’t own up to easily, for fear of a police crackdown. These largely impoverished villages plant cannabis simply because there is a high demand for it. “For them, it’s like any other crop, like pineapple or turmeric,” he said.
“They know growing cannabis is illegal. But it’s fast money,” he said. “If they grow other crops, they have to go outside their village to sell it. If they grow cannabis, people come to their doorsteps even before they even grow it, to place orders.” The impact of the trade is visible, he said, through a marked difference between the affluence of those who grow it, as opposed to those who don’t.
“We cut the plants, dry them and then hand them over to the customer,” one woman from the tribal community living in the Chintapalli town of Andhra Pradesh told Oommen in one of his reports.
Over the years, the tribal community has quietly witnessed the destruction of their cannabis plots, but has nevertheless gone back to it each time. Sawang said the trade “exploits the tribals,” and that it is a culture brought in by the middlemen. “Sometimes the middlemen supply the seeds and encourage the farmers to grow cannabis,” he said. “The area’s climate also suits its growth.”
Andhra Pradesh police have conducted many, albeit sporadic, crackdowns on cannabis produce over the last many years. Photo: Andhra Pradesh Police
Oommen said that many members of the tribe make elaborate efforts to grow cannabis. “Cannabis grows very easily alongside a water body, which is how the police are able to track it too. So some farmers grow it in the remote hills, which they painstakingly water,” said Oommen. “Many farmers told me, ‘We take care of it more than we take care of our children.’”
Most locals are “surprisingly” not into consuming their own produce, Oommen added. “There is a fear of addiction among the young generation. But for the farmers, their goal is the next meal that day,” he said.
The government’s war on cannabis is, however, interspersed with initiatives to support the tribal communities, said Sawang. “These government programmes have made a positive impact. And with our sustained onslaught, we will be able to contain this trade in the next couple of years, or even months,” he said, adding that he hopes the rest of the country follows suit.
The dramatic optics from last weekend raised eyebrows among those researching medical cannabis use in India. “In a land where cannabis practically evolved for millions of years, how can burning make any difference?” said cannabis researcher Aayushman Narayan, who was a part of India’s first medical cannabis clinic.
For advocates of medical cannabis, the enigmatic plant is not the enemy, and cracking down on its cultivation wastes a valuable but misunderstood – if often misused – resource.
Cannabis is the world’s most widely used psychoactive substance, with one estimate bringing the value of its global sale to over $37.6 billion. The Cannabis Price Index counted New Delhi among the world’s cheapest markets, priced at $4.38 per gram. At the same time, India had the world’s fourth highest number of seizures in 2019, according to the United Nations’ latest World Drug Report.
India has a nascent cannabis legalisation movement, and many advocates like Narayan believe that regulation and more research on its use will do more good than prohibitions and burning ceremonies.
But there are exceptions, too. In 2018, the north Indian state of Uttarakhand became the first to allow cannabis farming of a variety with low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Now, states such as Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, and Himachal Pradesh – the production hub of “Malana cream”, a premium cannabis variety – are considering it as well.
“Cannabis is one of humanity's oldest cultivated crops, and has been extensively documented to be so. A robust demand for it exists and will continue to remain so,“ said Narayan. “The more [authorities] suppress it, the more they waste resources and time.”
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.