Updated: Sep 27, 2020
Cannabis sativa is one of the few scientific names that most of the Indian youth recognizes. It is the plant whose dry leaves are used to make marijuana, also called weed, pot, grass, maal, stuff, and ganja in colloquial terms. But when these names come up in public, we are quick to shy away.
Till 1985, marijuana was available legally in government shops in India. It has been mentioned as one of the five most sacred plants on Earth in religious scriptures and is widely associated with Lord Shiva. It was the backbone of Indian ayurvedic industry and was called the penicillin of ayurvedic medicine. Why was it then made illegal in the country?
The continuance of the ban, is commonly attributed to the amount of revenue earned by the government via the liquor and tobacco companies. This cartel exercises its influence to not let a safer and cheaper competition enter the market for they are bound to lose. The lobbying prowess of the pharmaceuticals also seems to be working. The entry of marijuana based medicines would provide cheaper and arguably safer alternatives to allopathy.
However, these factions hadn't established such a strong influence in 1985. However on the other side of the world, a superpower named USA was waging a war against this plant. It's influence on India, rather on the world, was significant. This pressure on India is often cited as the root of the ban of this cultural symbol. Then let's take peek at why was the ban imposed in US?
Marijuana Ban in US - a history lesson on racism
Within the USA, the legal status of cannabis has been in question since the early 1900s. In the 1800s, there were no restrictions on the consumption of cannabis in the USA. Movement for banning marijuana did not start until the USA witnessed an influx of Mexican immigrants, fleeing political unrest in their home country. Mexicans had the practice of smoking cannabis recreationally. This was when the more sensational headlines about the "drug" began to appear.
Harry Anslinger, the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, labelled marijuana as a violence-inducing drug, connected it to black and Hispanic people. He instigated fear-mongering into the American media and public by popularizing the notion of Reefer Madness, linking usage to crime, violence, and antisocial behaviour. He created a strong association between the drug and the newly arrived Mexican immigrants and created a narrative that cannabis made black people forget their place in society. This led to the creation of the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937, which started taxation on weed sales. Black people were persecuted about three times more than the whites for flouting this Act and Mexicans were nearly nine times more likely to be arrested for the same charge.
The Boggs Act was passed in 1952 amidst growing racism and xenophobia. The Act introduced mandatory sentencing for drug convictions, with first offence punishment of two to five years in prison and a fine up to $2,000. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 was passed under President Nixon. It classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug, defined as substances with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse and addiction. Other notable members of this cohort are heroin, LSD, ecstasy, methaqualone, and peyote.
Classifying cannabis as a schedule I drug has been highly debated since then. But to this day, it remains in that category. Marijuana-related incarcerations still disproportionately affect minority groups in the US. The ACLU reported that in 2010, black people were four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people, even though both groups consume marijuana at about the same rate. While 11 states have legalized the recreational use of cannabis, and others allow medical consumption of marijuana, federal restrictions on the drug still remain in place.
Legalization of weed has led to reduced usage of other unregulated substances, that are more harmful and are related to violent street crimes. It has also resulted in increased tax revenues, job growth, and investment opportunities in states of Washington and Colorado. The effects of marijuana on health, addiction and abuse can be debated upon intensely. But, in an ecosystem where far more addictive and damaging substances remain legal and, in many cases unregulated (yes sugar, we are talking about you), is it the government's prerogative to control usage of substances that have been proven less damaging by numerous studies?