In a highly-anticipated vote held on December 2, the United Nations Commission for Narcotic Drugs reclassified cannabis as a less dangerous drug. The historic vote removed cannabis from the Schedule IV category, where it was listed alongside dangerous and highly addictive opioids like heroin. The plant, that has been widely acknowledged for its healing and therapeutic properties, has finally been accepted for its medicinal value, even though it still remains a banned drug for non-medical use under UN law. 53 countries were involved in this historic vote, with 27 voting in favour of rescheduling cannabis. India was one of them.
As a signatory to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs , anyone caught peddling, scoring or smoking weed could be arrested in India under the obligatory 1985 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS). But while the way forward is still foggy, experts believe this historic vote could spark social acceptance and a wider framework when it comes to policing pot users.
“In India, the central government gives states the power to cultivate cannabis, and this new positive outlook will make state governments less hesitant to give permissions to growers and researchers” said Delzaad Deolaliwala, the co-founder of Bombay Hemp Company (BOHECO), an organisation that retails cannabis products and is also researching the medical and industrial use of cannabis. The licensed sale of cannabinoids (components of cannabis which are also produced by the human body) like CBD is legal in India, while states like Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh are allowed to grow marijuana for medical, industrial and research purposes. He explains that while clinical trials to determine the commercial and medical use of cannabis were being done with marijuana leaves, the new classification would allow for the plant’s buds and resin to be used as well.
“Earlier, we could only manufacture products made from bhang or the leaves of the cannabis plant using the ayurvedic perspective. The cannabis flower will still be a narcotic by definition, but it will now hopefully be better available to treat conditions like arthritis, stress, anxiety, chronic pain and epilepsy,” Deolaliwala said.
Cannabis is deeply rooted in India’s ancient scriptures, and in some Indian states like Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, bhang, an edible made from cannabis buds, leaves and extracts, is legally sold.
“Since India does not have an independent NDPS Act, the government would always have to worry about the UN putting sanctions if they tried to legalise cannabis, like they did in Uruguay,” Vinesh Chandrakant, an injury rehab specialist and director at CBD Store India, which sells medical marijuana products, told VICE. Chandrakant believes that the development will lay the groundwork for small-scale industries or independent farmers who want to cultivate high-grade cannabis strains.
“The fact that India voted for this rescheduling makes the government’s stance on cannabis clear,” Avnish Pandya, who is also a co-founder of BOHECO, told VICE. Pandya points out that despite a massive crackdown on cannabis in India over this year, and the media vilification that it prompted, the government’s official position does recognise the medical benefits of marijuana. However, he stresses, the sweeping change that will hopefully be rolled out only pertains to the medical use of the plant. “Anyone caught smoking ganja can still be arrested as this does not include the recreational use of cannabis. However, it could bring more social acceptance.”
Other cannabis experts and activists agree that the reclassification could signal a shake-up when it comes to people’s attitude towards recreational use of weed, helping in the fight to legalise the plant even for non-medicinal purposes.
“This kind of a decision taken on an international scale could make it easier in our fight with the High Court,” Viki Vaurora, the founder of The Great Legalisation Movement, a cannabis advocacy group who filed a petition challenging the ban on cannabis in the Delhi High Court in 2019, told VICE. “It is one of the greatest milestones in the journey of the cannabis plant. But it’s also disappointing that it took so long for this miraculous plant’s medical benefits to be acknowledged.”
The news of this historic vote is also tinged with concerns that the wider acceptance of cannabis could impact smaller, more vulnerable players in the industry. “My biggest fear is when you regulate the cannabis market and bring in taxation and paperwork, it shifts the cultivation power from smaller farmers who may not have the education or know-how, to giant industrial players,” Chandrakant pointed out. His concerns are echoed by Vaurora, who has been advocating for permission to allow individuals to grow and use their own plants. “We have to avoid commercialisation of cannabis because that will destroy the essence of the plant,” said Vaurora.
Many cannabis lobbyists remain skeptical about the older majority’s moral high ground attitude against weed changing in light of this development. There is also criticism that despite cannabis being rescheduled at the UN vote, other recommendations—such as rescheduling THC and removing cannabis extracts and tinctures from the list of prohibited substances—were rejected. This has made some cannabis activists feel that despite the historic win, the UN vote only confirmed something people already knew, and probably wouldn’t add too much weight to legalisation movements around the world. “So the UN body is saying ‘yes cannabis has therapeutic potential, but we’ll still control it from Schedule 1, which also includes a dangerous synthetic and legal drug called Fentanyl, while we’ll also make sure that we vote against anything to do with relaxing controls on THC and CBD-THC combinations because we know they’re a part of cannabis,” reads a blog from Marijuana Maharaj, an Indian portal that discusses insights in the cannabis industry.
However, there is hope that the rescheduling could be a high note for cannabis reforms in India. “Just like how the U.S. rolled out cannabis legalisation state-wise, Indian states most dependent on cannabis cultivation to boost their economy, such as Himachal Pradesh, are more likely to decriminalise or legalise the plant,” said Chandrakant. The injury specialist adds that the international victory could help challenge the moral standpoint of those who oppose the use and cultivation of cannabis.
“India is taking a very sophisticated route to bring cannabis for medical use,” stated Pandya, who also believes that India probably won’t allow medical cannabis to be smoked or inhaled, as is permitted in the U.S. “The bigger win will come when the U.S. federally legalises the recreational use of cannabis. But in light of the vote, there’s only one direction this movement will go: upwards.”