Stoners and the sacred: Cannabis will always be popular in India thanks to Maha Shivaratri.


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Once a reviled street drug, cannabis is now beginning to be viewed globally as a relatively benign herb that actually possesses medicinal properties.  This emerging trend has also spread to India where cannabis use has recently enjoyed an officially sanctioned renaissance.

In 1985, the reigning government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi succumbed to diplomatic pressure from the United States and passed a bill that strictly curtailed the production and possession of cannabis products.  The new law gave regional state administrations a complete monopoly on the cultivation of cannabis. Under existing laws, individuals who are found guilty of engaging in the illicit production and distribution of cannabis can face up to ten years in prison. 

Nevertheless, despite the existence of such draconian penalties, the consumption of cannabis remains popular as testified by the fact that a government study in 2019 also revealed that 7.2 million people had developed an addiction to cannabis.

The Indian government itself has never imposed an outright ban on the use of cannabis. In important pilgrimage sites such as Varanasi and Puskhar, numerous government owned stores actually sell cannabis products to visiting Hindu monks. This seemingly odd juxtaposition of the religious and the profane illustrates the fact that cannabis has played an important role in India’s religious traditions for millennia.

Ancient Hindu scriptures such as the Atharva Veda praise cannabis as a sacred herb endowed with the ability to drive off evil spirits. Moreover, the drug is associated with Shiva who is one of the most revered deities in the Hindu pantheon. A myth credits the god for introducing the use of this drug to humankind. During the Shivaratri religious festival that celebrates the birthday of Shiva, devotees engage in the unbridled consumption of cannabis and even burn it as an offering to the deity.   

Cannabis has also long been lauded in India as a remedy for a wide range of maladies. An ancient Indian medical treatise called the Sushruta Samhita prescribed the consumption of cannabis as a treatment for bouts of diarrhea and phlegm.   Presently, practitioners of traditional Indian medicine or Ayurveda as it is popularly termed, use cannabis-based remedies to treat various ailments such as anemia, elevated blood pressure, ear infections, kidney stones, skin disorders and meningitis.

Moreover, cannabis is prescribed as a painkiller for patients who are afflicted with tuberculosis and cancer due to the belief that it is less likely than opiate-based alternatives to cause unwanted side effects such as attacks of nausea.   Additionally, Indian wrestlers mix cannabis into a paste along with other ingredients like pistachios, almonds, saffron and cow’s milk. The resulting concoction allows them to consume vast amounts of food without straining their digestive system.     

By advocating a revival of Ayurvedic based remedies, the current Indian administration of Narendra Modi has removed the stigma of official opprobrium that previously surrounded the use of cannabis. A cabinet minister’s claim in 2017 that the legalization of cannabis for medical purposes would benefit the country as well as the declaration of the Central Government in 2022 that cannabis use could be legally permitted for medical research signify changing attitudes towards this drug.

This more accommodating approach has resulted in Indian researchers examining the properties of the cannabidiol compound found in cannabis that has previously been used to treat various disorders in other countries. Medical trials that were carried out in late 2021 by the government affiliated Central Council For Research in Ayurvedic Sciences have successfully demonstrated the ability of cannabis to effectively treat chronic pain in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Furthermore, the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research’s Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine (CSIR-IIIM) has announced that it is currently formulating three cannabis derived drugs to treat cancer, epilepsy and sickle-cell anemia.

In line with this new sentiment, states such as Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh have legalized the cultivation of cannabis for research purposes. Private sector operators have also started to capitalize on this new cannabis bonanza as illustrated by the decision of Hyderabad based Dr Reddy’s Laboratories to acquire a cannabis wholesaler in Germany.

The rehabilitation of cannabis’ reputation attests to the enduring place of this drug in the subcontinent’s ancient cultural heritage as well as its continuing importance for Indians.

WORDS: Shree Raman.


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