In India, the use of cannabis dates back to the Vedic times and has been a part of religious rituals and festivities for millennia. Attempts at criminalising cannabis were first made in British India, in the late 19th century. But until the late 1980s, cannabis and opium were legal in India, sold in government-run shops and traded by the British East India Company. Before India signed the Single Geneva Convention of 1961—which classified cannabis products and opiates as narcotics—ganja, charas, and bhang were sold through government outlets, as per a system laid down by the British government. The user had to get a certificate from a government doctor and had to register with the outlet for his quota. But the Rajiv Gandhi government succumbed to pressure from the United States that was campaigning for a worldwide law against drugs and in 1985, India passed the controversial NDPS—Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act—which banned the production and sale of cannabis resin and flowers, but permitted the use of its leaves and seeds.
Today, marijuana is so heavily criminalised that few people are willing to go on record and admit to using it. But we found one guy, a 60-year-old man named Gurpreet S. who agreed to explain what it was like smoking weed in India before criminalisation. Here’s what he said:
I was in Delhi when grass could legally be bought in states like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, at government shops. It was a weird time because even though the seed was legal, weed had lesser social acceptability than it does today. If you were seen smoking, you were called a junkie and so all of us did it behind closed doors. There was no question of a dealer contacting you or you getting in touch with them because we didn’t have mobile phones. But we knew where to find the pushers (dealers). Though they wouldn’t be found on main roads, they could still be found quite easily.
Because we were students and didn’t have much money, we would buy a pudiya (a parcel/packet) for three bucks. This would make us five joints. What we got was really good stuff and not like the crap you find today. I usually went near the Jama Masjid area to find the pusher I bought from and the process was very chill. Sometimes, he would be sitting with a cop outside his house and they’d be smoking a chillum together. They were all very helpful. They would often ask us to sit with them and smoke.
I remember how I was once in that area and had lost my wallet. I was stuck and so, in a state of panic, I went to the pusher I knew to ask if I could borrow some money. He told me to not worry, and to just sit with him and smoke a joint. He then asked an auto-rickshaw driver to drop me to college, and that I needn’t bother returning the money to him.
Unfortunately, today, what you get (to smoke) is all crap. It’s very difficult to source good stuff and hence, I don’t smoke anymore. I moved from Delhi to Mumbai in 1983, and when I tried to source some stuff, I realised there’s something called Bombay Black (dubious hash notorious for containing everything from boot polish to cow dung to mehendi). Now, I smoke only once in a while when I go on holidays in the mountains, where I have friends.
Back then, there was no concept of getting busted by a cop. Even drinking and driving was more common and pardonable. I remember when I was a young guy and had just got married, I had parked my car by the side of the road and stepped out. A cop had come up to me and started asking asking questions. He got into an argument with me but then, another cop with him just tapped him on his shoulder and told him I was drunk and he should let me go!
The criminalisation of weed happened over time. Nobody really enforced it for a long time even after it was criminalised. However, even though it’s criminalised now, it’s far more socially acceptable today. You can now go to a party at someone’s house and smoke. Back then, it would just see three or so smokers locking themselves in a room, passing around a joint and smoking in secret.
Follow Dhvani Solani on Instagram.