Context: Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu announced that the State government is considering legalising the cultivation of cannabis. The announcement was made during the Budget Session of the State Assembly in Shimla. The State government is cautious about the potential increase in drug use and has formed a five-member committee of MLAs to conduct a thorough study of each and every aspect related to cannabis cultivation in the State.
- India banned the cultivation of the cannabis plant under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act in 1985.
- However, the act allows state governments to allow controlled and regulated cultivation of hemp for obtaining its fibre and seed for industrial or horticultural purposes.
- In 2018, Uttarakhand became the first state in the country to legalise the cultivation of only those strains of the cannabis plant which have a low concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive constituent of cannabis that produces a high sensation.
- Uttar Pradesh followed a similar policy, while Madhya Pradesh and Manipur are also considering it.
Uses and Benefits of Hemp
- Traditionally in Himachal, hemp is used for footwear, ropes, mats, and food. Kept people warm, and energetic in the snow. CM said seeds are used for paint, ink, and biofuel; quality is among the world’s best.
- Globally, hemp is used for health, medicines, and building material. Can generate employment, the economy in Himachal given limits on the industry, and tourism (hit by Covid-19). Seeking to attract the hemp industry to meet debt (higher than budget), and fund dependence.
Concerns Around Legalization
- Hemp source of psychoactive intoxicants like charas (hashish), and ganja (bhang in Himachal). Smoked, in food/drinks. Banned under NDPS Act regardless of hemp legalization.
- Risk of diversion to recreational use. Strict regulation and monitoring are required. Limits on THC, licensed cultivators can address concerns. Awareness of the difference between recreational cannabis is needed.
Argument For and Against Legalization
- For: Tradition of use; regulated medicinal/commercial use allowed; economy, jobs; tax source.
- Against: Risk of misuse, addiction, social problems; challenges for law enforcement.
Global Experience: Lessons for India
- Facts: Canada and the US legalized recreational cannabis. Medicinals are allowed in many nations. India is not ready for recreational use given social factors.
- Learn from Uruguay (govt controlled cannabis market), and Colorado (the first state to legalize recreational use; $1.5bn in cannabis sales in 2019). Strict regulations on cultivation, sale, and use.
- Alternative to the illegal black market if regulated. But risks of over-commercialization, corporate cannabis. Balanced policy approach for society’s well-being.
Hemp cultivation is reasonable for the economy, and regulated medicinal/commercial uses given tradition, and potential. But risks around illicit narcotics require close oversight and control. Policies must ensure benefits outweigh the costs to society and the environment.
Awareness, and responsibility key to gain public trust. With guidelines, hemp can drive the rural economy, and livelihoods sustainably. The policy intervention requires nuanced thinking considering both pros and cons. With strict oversight and responsibility, regulated hemp cultivation may benefit livelihoods and the state economy. But it calls for a cautious, balanced approach given social and health factors.
- Tetrahydrocannabinol or THC is the main psychoactive compound found in cannabis plants like marijuana and hemp.
- THC acts on specific receptors in the brain called cannabinoid receptors. It produces a high sense of euphoria by influencing the release of dopamine in the brain.
- The amount of THC determines how strong the psychoactive effects of cannabis will be. Cannabis plants are often bred to have high THC content to produce greater highs. Products with higher THC can cause more mind-altering effects.
- THC in large amounts can lead to negative health effects like memory and cognition problems, risk of addiction, anxiety, and psychosis. However, in controlled amounts, THC may have certain medical benefits like relieving chronic pain, nausea from chemotherapy, appetite loss, etc.
- THC acts much faster when cannabis is smoked compared to when it is eaten. Smoking delivers THC to the brain within seconds. Edibles take 30 minutes to 2 hours as THC is absorbed through the digestive tract. This can often lead to the overconsumption of edibles.
- THC is fat-soluble, meaning it binds to fatty molecules in the body. So, it can accumulate in the body’s fatty tissues and organs over multiple uses. It may remain detectable in urine for 3 to 7 days after use. In hair, it can be detected for months.
- The legal status of THC depends on its source and concentration. Marijuana and marijuana-derived products with high THC content are illegal under federal law in most countries. However, some countries and states have legalized the recreational or medical use of marijuana with limits on THC. Hemp and its derivatives with very low THC (less than 0.3%) are legal in many places.
- Synthetic THC compounds like SPICE or K2 act on the same cannabinoid receptors as THC but often have more potent and undesired side effects. They are illegal for recreational use in most countries.
Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985
The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 or NDPS Act is an act of the Parliament of India which prohibits persons from producing/manufacturing, possessing, selling, purchasing, transporting, storing, and/or consuming any narcotic drug or psychotropic substance.
Key provisions of the NDPS Act:
- It consolidates and amends the law relating to narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances, controlled substances and precursor chemicals and provides stringent punishments for violations.
- It aims to fulfil India’s obligations under various international conventions on narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances. India is a party to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances 1971 and United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances 1988.
- It prohibits cultivation, possession, sale, purchase, transport, storage, or consumption of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances except for medical and scientific purposes.
- It includes control over precursor chemicals, essential chemicals that are used in the production of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, to prevent their diversion.
- It provides for the forfeiture of properties and assets derived from or involved in illicit traffic and also includes provisions for the treatment and rehabilitation of addicts.
- Offences under the Act are cognizable and non-bailable. Stringent punishments including imprisonment up to 20 years or even life imprisonment, and fines up to Rs.2 lakh or more have been prescribed under the Act for violations.
- Enforcement is carried out by narcotics control authorities under the Department of Revenue, Government of India coordinated by the Narcotics Control Bureau. Preventive detention is allowed under the Act.
- It also includes provisions for mutual legal assistance with other countries in cases related to narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances.
Amendments to NDPS act
- NDPS (Amendment) Act, 1988: It enhanced penalties for certain offences under the Act and also included additional substances under its purview.
- NDPS (Amendment) Act, 1989: It further enhanced penalties and included more substances. It amended Section 9 of the Act to authorize officers of DRI and above the rank of Inspector to investigate offences under NDPS Act.
- NDPS (Amendment) Act, 2001: It provided for precursors of narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances to be regulated and controlled. It also included forfeiture of illegally acquired property under the Act.
- NDPS (Amendment) Act, 2014: Some key changes were:
- Only officers of gazetted rank can investigate cases.
- Punishment for financing illicit trafficking and harbouring offenders was prescribed.
- Period of limitation to file an appeal increased from 30 to 60 days.
- Power to freeze or seize illegally acquired properties provided.
- Fast track courts for speedy trials were constituted.
- Punishment for repeat offenders was enhanced.
- Officers not below Deputy SP rank can investigate offences.
- NDPS (Amendment) Bill, 2019: It aims to amend NDPS Act 1985 to improve India’s compliance with international conventions on narcotic drugs and make offences under the Act more stringent. Key proposals:
- List of drugs/narcotics is proposed to be updated. New psychotropic substances are intended to be added.
- Definitions of certain terms like ‘narcotic drug’ and ‘psychotropic substance’ are proposed to be expanded.
- Punishments proposed to be made stricter for cultivating, producing, manufacturing, possessing, selling, purchasing, transporting, importing or exporting narcotic drugs.
- Prosecution of directors/partners/proprietors of companies/ partnerships/ proprietorship proposed for offences by company/partnership/proprietorship.
- Control of precursor chemicals used to produce narcotic drugs proposed to be strengthened.
The NDPS Bill 2019 is still pending. The amendments over the years have aimed at tightening the NDPS Act provisions and increasing compliance with India’s international obligations.
Major Criticisms of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act 1985
- Harsh and disproportionate punishments: The NDPS Act provides for stringent punishments like a minimum of 10 years of imprisonment for possession of small quantities of drugs for personal consumption. Critics argue that this is disproportionate and harsh. It leads to overcrowding in prisons and hampers the rehabilitation of offenders.
- Ambiguous definitions: Definitions of certain terms like ‘narcotic drug’ and ‘psychotropic substance’ under the Act are very broad. This gives wide discretion to law enforcement agencies and can lead to misuse. The Act also does not clearly distinguish between drug users/addicts and traffickers.
- Lack of focus on harm reduction: The NDPS Act focuses more on deterrence through harsh punishments rather than harm reduction. It does not have adequate provisions for the rehabilitation of drug dependents. The Act takes a punitive approach rather than seeing drug addiction as a public health issue.
- Encourages corruption: The NDPS Act encourages corruption among law enforcers as they have been given wide powers with little accountability. Harsh punishments also incentivize bribery to escape imprisonment.
- Disproportionate impact on marginalized groups: The NDPS Act has a disproportionate impact on marginalized groups like the poor, minorities and youth. They are more prone to drug abuse due to disadvantaged backgrounds but the criminal justice system is more likely to target them.
- Undermines right to privacy: Wide powers given to law enforcers under NDPS Act in conducting raids, searches and seizures can violate the right to privacy of individuals. Powers of arrest and detention also undermine civil liberties.
- Does not curb drug problem: Despite the stringent provisions, the NDPS Act has failed to effectively curb the drug menace in India. Drug trafficking and abuse continue to rise. So, there is a need to rethink the punitive approach in tackling this issue.
These are some of the major criticisms of the NDPS Act that point to the need for reforms in India’s anti-narcotics legal framework and policies. The NDPS Act needs to take a balanced approach focusing on harm reduction and decriminalization of certain offenses.