On a Sunday in January, a group of about 30 college students gathered under the oversize Indian flag in Connaught Place's Central Park to advocate for the legalisation of cannabis. As I chatted with the slightly glassy-eyed supporters of the Great Legalisation Movement - India (GLM), a young man with a large saffron tikka walked up to us and said, aggressively, “I won’t let you people take pot.” One of the students yelled back, “You’re just uneducated, bro!”
A long argument ensued, but by the time I left the protest, the pot advocates hadn’t really managed to convince their critic. Yet Utsav Thapliyal, the movement’s 23-year-old Delhi ambassador and a student of psychology at Amity University, was optimistic that his group’s efforts would soon bear fruit.
GLM-India was founded in Bengaluru in 2014, with the aim of legalising cannabis and hemp production. The movement held marches in several cities late last year in support of Member of Parliament Dharamvir Gandhi’s private bill to legalise the medicinal use of cannabis and opium. Gandhi and other MPs argue that the ban on cannabis is “elitist”, and that the drug should not be clubbed together with harder intoxicants in the eyes of the law.
I spoke to Thapliyal at the march in January, which was held simultaneously across 16 cities.
VICE: Why did you join the movement to legalise cannabis?
Utsav Thapliyal: To support something that has been made illegal for no reason. The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act was formulated in 1985, where cannabis was listed as a Schedule I drug. But it’s a naturally growing plant, why would you make it illegal? Cannabis is a great medicine. It’s a sacred plant which has been used for ages. Our Aghori culture and indigenous tribes have been using it.
Do your parents know about your beliefs?
Yeah. They think it’s good that I support the movement.
How big is GLM?
The movement is just in its initial phases. The gatherings are bigger in Bangalore—the other cities are just trying to get to their levels. At the last meeting in Delhi there were just two people. But it’s so good to see so many people here today.
One of your campaign posters says that law isn’t letting you practice your religion. Why not?
India indigenously has been inclined towards ganja. Lord Shiva is associated with it, and a lot of other gods too. In the Vedas and Ayurvedas, it’s called a sacred herb. If the people of our country follow the Vedas so religiously, then why not the plant?
The USA has Snoop Dogg and Seth Rogan. Who would you want to adopt as a cultural icon for your cause in India?
Naseerudin Shah, for sure. He would be great. And his son, Imaad.
Do you personally know anyone who has benefitted from taking marijuana medicinally?
There's this guy, Cliff, who is being treated with cannabis oil somewhere in Karnataka. He had cancer in his urinary bladder and chose cannabis oil over surgery as he didn't have money. The founders of the Great Legalisation Movement helped him. He too had stage three or four cancer, and the doctors told him if he undergoes chemotherapy, he will have five months to live. He chose cannabis treatment over chemotherapy and survived for three to four years.
Your movement argues that legalising cannabis will help farmers—how?
There’s this huge illegal trade that happens, and mafias are involved. Once cannabis and hemp are legalised and regulated in the market, at least these farmers will have jobs. We believe people will find jobs outside the city and go into the cannabis industry more and more. It will reverse the population density in the city. People will be involved in manufacturing, in logistics, in farming. It will create jobs, and we can actually have a hemp economy.
One of the demands on your website is a “Presidential Apology to the Ministry of Ayurveda, to the cancer victims across the country and to all the people who were arrested, threatened and abused for the use of cannabis.” How will this help?
Our government needs to understand that all animals, including humans, and plants are chemically driven species. They will reach out to consume substances regardless. It's better if substances are made legal and regulated or administered under proper conditions.
There should be a proper governing body consisting of highly educated and understanding doctors, lawyers, psychologists, pharmacists, harm reductionists, nurses, etc, who should come together and formulate the laws. Hence, a presidential apology is requested, for the lack of effort to look upon the condition and legislature of our country, in the context of substances.
The cancer victims who couldn't get access to this plant, underwent excruciating pain and passed away; the individuals who couldn't research on this plant; and the drug offenders or traffickers rotting in jail cells and having criminal records because of this plant have suffered unnecessarily.
See, no one's actually going to benefit from a presidential apology. It'll be a caress to people’s egos. What matters is that the plant be legalised, so everyone can benefit.
How does your movement need to evolve and organise to gain momentum?
A lot of times when the public wants to showcase their agenda to the government, people start protesting and things go wrong. We’re working in this society—we need to follow certain laws so as to do everything legally. We need to gather more people and reach those in authority who have the power to change the law.
When do you think cannabis and hemp will be legal?
See, that’s not in my hands but I would definitely want it to be legalised as soon as possible. In the next six months. But realistically, a year? We will see what we can do because we are also trying to push ourselves.
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