If you’re a stoner in India right now, it’s kind of a downer.
A nationwide crackdown is not only making supplies run dry, but also gaining massive media attention. It all began when Rhea Chakraborty, an Indian actor accused of abetting the suicide of her late boyfriend, actor Sushant Singh Rajput, was accused of texting her friend about scoring weed. Soon after, Chakraborty’s WhatsApp chats about cannabis became the main subject of high-strung prime time debates. This ultimately led to the actor being arrested by India’s Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), a federal agency that investigates drug smuggling cases, for WhatsApp chats that said she procured 59 grams of weed. However, no physical evidence of the substance was found. Along with Chakraborty, 17 others—including her brother—have been arrested by the NCB for procuring or peddling drugs, mainly marijuana, under India’s Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS).
Meanwhile, the NCB also arrested people from the Kannada film industry, in which 13 people—including actors Ragini Dwivedi and Sanjjanaa Galrani—were jailed for allegedly peddling cannabis and other drugs. Most recently, police have seized more than 9,000 kilograms of cannabis from a farm in Karnataka.
The increasing crackdown on cannabis has, in turn, caught the attention of some mainstream media channels. Not only have national news channels claimed Chakraborty “force-fed” drugs to her late boyfriend, but other women named in this case have been shown on television screens in swimwear or crop tops. Such visuals further drive the false but popular narrative that women in such clothing are bound to “use drugs”, as a recent case showed. Furthermore, the false narrative also portrays drug users (and those smoking weed even recreationally are often labelled so) as evil and immoral.
Meanwhile, news channel Times Now even called Cannabidiol (CBD), a legal product derived from the marijuana plant, a “banned” substance. These media channels have spun a narrative that vilifies and alienates cannabis users, ultimately resulting in some of them scoring the highest viewership they’ve ever gotten.
But the cacophony over cannabis use is not just making stoners roll their eyes in frustration. It’s also impacting a movement that has spent several years to push for the medicinal and recreational use of marijuana in India.
“We received several calls from concerned customers who give CBD to their children to treat epilepsy and autism, worried about whether the treatment would continue under this [media] pressure,” Vinesh Chandrakant, an injury rehab specialist and director at CBD Store India, which sells medicinal products derived from the marijuana plant, told VICE. Chandrakant admitted that following the skewed media narrative around CBD, his company’s sales decreased by 15 percent.
The beginning of 2020 was a high point for cannabis users in India. In late 2019, the Delhi High Court agreed to hear a petition, filed by cannabis advocacy group the Great Legalisation Movement, to challenge the ban on cannabis. In February, the country also got its first medical cannabis clinic, located in Bengaluru.
Recent mainstream Bollywood films like Gully Boy and Guilty, as well as OTT series like Made in Heaven and Masaba Masaba, have routinely portrayed their characters smoking pot, in a way that can help push for normalisation of recreational drug use. In fact, a global worldwide survey on the cities with the highest number of cannabis users revealed that Mumbai and Delhi were in the top ten.
These factors suggest that recreational, as well as medicinal and industrial use of cannabis is at an all-time high.
“In India, cannabis carries a cultural dichotomy,” said Avnish Pandya, who founded the Bombay Hemp Company (BOHECO) that’s been pushing to make industrial and medical marijuana a mainstay in the Indian economy, through R&D and production of a wide array of products. Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant grown specifically for industrial purposes.
“On one side, you have the vilification you see on your television and cops arresting people for possession. On the other, you have sadhus (holy men) smoking it openly at melas in front of the cops.”
In fact, the marijuana plant is embedded deep inside India’s cultural roots. It is one of the five sacred plants mentioned in the Vedas, an ancient Hindu scripture, and widely acknowledged for its medicinal and dietary benefits.
Bhang, an edible mixture made from cannabis buds, leaves and flowers and known for its psychoactive effects, is legally sold in government approved shops in Indian states like Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. During the Hindu festival of Holi, not only is bhang widely consumed but it also carries societal approval—one that many find hypocritical considering the harsh punishments on cannabis consumption in the country otherwise.
“As per studies, at least 40 million people in India smoke cannabis, so there’s no running away from the fact that it is widely used,” said Pandya. “But no matter how emotional our view of recreational use is, the fact is that we signed the NDPS act in 1985 along with the U.S. and Europe.”
Pandya, whose company has been at the forefront of conducting clinical trials to understand the medicinal benefits of marijuana, is optimistic that its medical research will continue despite biased media narratives and constant crackdowns. However, he adds, for the government to legalise recreational use of cannabis, a single convention would have to globally reschedule the plant into a less harmful category than drugs like cocaine and MDMA.
“Our fight [to legalise/decriminalise marijuana] is with the courts, and that won’t change no matter what the media says,” Viki Vaurora, the founder of India’s Great Legalisation Movement, told VICE. Vaurora, who has been digitally striking for a pro-cannabis movement called Liberate 2020, theorises that the media propaganda comes amid concerns of the cannabis industry threatening the sales of alcohol and tobacco industries in the country.
However, cannabis activists at the forefront of India’s movement to decriminalise and legalise marijuana remain optimistic.
“This [the crackdown] may reveal the truth of how deeply entrenched cannabis is in Indian society,” pointed out Chandrakant. He added that in the long-term, the constant attention given to cannabis by the media might even make people more aware about the criminalised plant.
Pandya agrees that some good might just come out of this media circus. He said, “It’s going to enable a conversation [on cannabis] and push more people to see the logic in it.”
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