The Jai Shree Mahakal shop in the city of Indore in central India’s Madhya Pradesh state stands like a vividly coloured constellation of lights packed with enthusiastic, beaming patrons on any given day.
On special occasions like the Hindu festival of Holi, fresh marigold flowers frame the hand-drawn menus in blood red lettering, cashew and almond milkshakes are mixed with bhang and served endlessly, and foreign tourists sporting psychedelic tattoos of mandalas and tridents stand in the same queue as local Indian families eager for their stash of bhang.
Bhang is a cannabis-based product that is legally sold in certain parts of India.
Unlike most of the legal bhang shops in India that can be seen dotting the country’s drab national highways, the Jai Shree Mahakal shop – with an 80-year legacy – lies in the heart of Indore’s Sarafa bazaar. This bazaar is a bustling jewellery market by day and the city’s food capital by night.
Ravi Jaiswal, the 33-year-old manager of the shop, joined the business when he was 15, taking over the reins from his father. For Jaiswal, even as a child, the sheer buzzing energy of the shop and its customers was contagious.
“To see everyone from college gangs and entire families to tourists queuing up together for our pure, high-quality bhang offerings has always been a thing of great happiness,” he told VICE.
In India, the cannabis plant has a long and complicated legal and social history. The Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act of 1985 delineates what’s legal and what isn’t when it comes to cannabis in India.
The law itself is often attributed to the conservatism of the Reagan-era drug policies and the pressures that came with India and other countries adopting the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 that carted cannabis with hard drugs. According to the NDPS Act, distributing the resin of the cannabis plant itself is illegal but not the plant’s seeds, stems, and leaves. This is where bhang comes into the picture.
“Bhang [that is legal] is a paste obtained from grinding cannabis leaves and stems in a machine or manually [through a pestle and mortar],” said Srijan Sharma of itshemp. His company is the first and largest marketplace in India where you can purchase medical and sustainable cannabis products. It works closely with many licensed cannabis manufacturers who cultivate and collect cannabis from Uttarakhand. “But ganja (weed), made from the flowers of the cannabis plant, and charas (hashish), obtained from the resin of the plant, are illegal to sell and use.”
In 2018, Uttarakhand became the first state to issue a licence for the industrial cultivation of cannabis to the Indian Industrial Hemp Association (IIHA) – a non-profit organisation that promotes the industrial use of hemp – to grow the fibre over a plot of 1,000 hectares, on a pilot basis. Sharma is one of its members.
Shops selling bhang, such as Jaiswal’s, have to obtain and frequently renew their licence from the local excise department before selling it in various forms, the most popular being the thandai. This is made by boiling a mixture of milk, sugar, poppy seeds, pepper, ginger, cloves, cardamom, almonds, pistachios, nutmeg, and rosebuds with bhang. When made right, the drink is delicious and cooling, which is a major relief in sultry months.
The cannabis plant has had a significant impact on India’s cultural and social history too. Shiva, one of three principal deities of Hinduism, is said to have sought refuge under a cannabis plant after a heated argument with his family, only to be taken by its cooling properties when he consumed it. He is said to have later used cannabis as a relaxant during meditation. Another legend mentions Shiva consuming cannabis to cool himself off after he drank the poison that emerged from the great churning of the ocean, known as the Samudra Manthan, by the gods and demons.
Devotion to Shiva also includes consumption of bhang, reaching its peak during the annual Maha Shivaratri (the night of Shiva’s cosmic dance of destruction) celebrations. Many folk songs across the country, particularly in north India, refer to the cannabis plant, and bhang in particular, as the nectar of the gods.
For the government-licensed bhang shops, obtaining the raw material in the form of crushed leaves and stems is a rather straightforward process.
Sukhpal Singh, who runs his legal bhang shop in Noida on the outskirts of the capital Delhi, told VICE that the raw material has to come solely from government godowns. Although the licence fee varies in different states, Singh paid a one-time licence fee of Rs 2 million ($26,000) for his bhang shop.
“After obtaining the permit to sell bhang from the local excise department, every bhang shop is assigned a monthly quota from the government depending on their capacity to sell and the average number of customers they receive,” he said.
Where does the cannabis come from before landing in the godowns, though? Sharma of itshemp, the online cannabis marketplace, said there are usually three sources: from the busts and seizures made by the narcotics department, the farmers who legally cultivate it, and from forests where cannabis grows in the wild. VICE couldn’t independently confirm that the hauls from illegal cannabis busts actually end up being sold in government godowns.
“The primary difference between the licence obtained by bhang shops and the one issued to online marketplaces such as ours is that bhang shops can only sell their products in a limited geography, while we can do so nationally,” said Sharma. “You do not need a medical prescription to sell or buy from these bhang shops but you do need one if you’re buying [medical] products from licensed online marketplaces.”
Ankush Khurrana is a part-time cannabis cultivator from Uttarakhand who also acts as the middleman between the government godowns and the farmers.
“One might assume that bhang is hardly important because it’s not that intoxicating (the high is not as potent but it can still have intense side-effects),” he told VICE. “But the emphasis on the quality of the bhang remains important. The farmers sell their raw material to the government in the form of coarsely crushed leaves and stems that must have a certain amount of moisture, colour and richness.”
Khurrana added that while hashish and marijuana derivatives of the plant can usually be lab tested for their potency, there is no established way to ascertain this for the raw materials that go into bhang. “You can use the High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) method for the quantitative detection of THC and CBD in cannabis formulation. But with bhang, it’s usually based on the expertise and experience of the excise officials [in judging quality].”
The cultivation-distribution-sale chain is also not uniform in all the states. The NDPS Act, Sharma said, allows states to formulate their own policies on distribution and cultivation, while steering clear of what is explicitly prohibited by the law.
“Uttar Pradesh, for example, allows the cultivation of cannabis [for bhang] and its sale throughout the state, but in Punjab, you can only sell it in bhang shops in designated areas. Rajasthan, on the other hand, does not issue licences for the cultivation of cannabis but does so for its sale,” he explained.
Sachin Awasthi, a farmer from Uttarakhand who has the licence to both cultivate and collect cannabis from the forests, told VICE that there is a downside to the states having different policies on distribution and cultivation.
“The biggest issue in the Uttarakhand policy is that it mandates that the THC (the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis) must be less than 0.3 percent in cannabis that is cultivated on farms,” he said. “Now, that is almost impossible to achieve for Indian strains. So, we end up importing the seeds from other countries under special licences.”
However, no THC limit applies to cannabis that grows in the wild. So, Awasthi and other farmers often gather their raw materials from wild cannabis under the collection licence. He hopes the central and state governments would soon form a uniform policy to help all stakeholders in the supply chain, and standardise the process of cultivating cannabis for farmers so they wouldn’t need to rely on wild plants.
India already seems to be making conscious efforts for the wider adoption and cultivation of cannabis. In December 2020, the country joined the majority that voted to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV (drugs prone to abuse and not offset even by therapeutic advantages) of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs – the same convention that had led to the NDPS Act.
But for bhang shop owners like Sukhpal Singh of Noida and Ravi Jaiswal of Indore, it’s business as usual. In the non-festive months when the business is slow, they stock up on the raw material for the festive months when the demand is high – the government quota is the same every month.
The process of making the bhang paste might have changed over time but not its appeal, and its sellers know they’ll always have a market for their wares. “We might have made small changes in the 80 years of our shop’s existence, like grinding the leaves in a machine now instead of using a sil batta (grinding stone),” Jaiswal said. “But the joy of submerging yourself in bhang remains the same.”
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