The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

“Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property whereas crimes are those acts by which a man harms the person or property of another.”

This distinction drawn by the American political philosopher Lysander Spooner indicates that acts such as gambling, drinking alcohol, or consuming drugs may be vices but they certainly should not amount to crimes.

Cannabis and its derivatives have been prevalent in India for centuries. From being mentioned as a panacea in the Atharva Veda to offerings of bhang made to Lord Shiva on Shivratri, this drug has deep-rooted religious and historical connotations for India. So why was it banned? In the 1970s, the United States pushed for prohibitionist drug regimes through the United Nations urging the criminalization of drugs including cannabis on an international level. This resulted in the enactment of the 1961 United Nations Convention on Narcotic Drugs and consequently, the 1985 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act in India that criminalized trafficking, cultivation, and recreational use of cannabis.

This prohibitionist regime that evolved from U.S. policies primarily targeting African-American and Hispanic communities has failed to effectively redress the drug problem. With several countries such as Canada, Uruguay, the Netherlands, and 26 states in the United States itself now decriminalizing cannabis consumption for personal use, is it time for India to tread the same path?

The original intent behind criminalizing cannabis in India was to restrict access to the drug. However, a report by the Indian Ministry of Social Justice indicates that cannabis is a widely consumed drug second to only alcohol with around 90 million cannabis users in India. Thus, criminalization has led to the emergence of black markets that are completely out of the purview of government regulation. One of the risks associated with black market cannabis is that of adulteration with sedatives such as benzodiazepine that cause addiction in the absence of the user’s knowledge or consent.

In addition to such unsafe practices, criminalization puts immense pressure on an already over-burdened police force and judiciary. When the police are compelled to increase their arrest rates for cannabis consumption and the judiciary is pressed to dispose of these trivial cases as quickly as possible, the poor and marginalized bear the brunt. With no access to legal aid or money to pay fines (or bribe the police), street and slum dwellers as well as daily wage workers consuming cannabis fall prey to this vicious system whereas the rich go scot-free for the same “crime.” Thus, the rich evade the criminal justice system leaving the poor and the vulnerable to take the fall.

Recently, Cornelis P. de Joncheere, President of the International Narcotics Control Board, remarked on the possibility of reviewing international drug conventions drafted 50-60 years ago and analyzing the need for new approaches more suitable to present times.

Decriminalization of cannabis shall reduce the pressure on the criminal justice system and redirect costs towards the improvement of treatment and rehabilitation systems instead. This public health approach shall not only destigmatize drug use but also create an atmosphere encouraging problematic users to seek help without fear of conviction thereby addressing the problem of drug addiction at the very root.

Time and time again, it has become evident that decriminalization does not necessarily lead to increased drug use. For instance, countries such as Portugal that have decriminalized drug possession and use below a certain threshold have reported a significant decrease in drug use amongst adolescents, drug-related deaths, and arrests coupled with an increase in people seeking de-addiction treatment. This is indicative of the fact that what is required is government regulation and not criminalization. With the right policy, governments can address the issue of drug addiction while preventing the isolation of drug users.

The legalization of cannabis for recreational purposes not only combats black markets and organized crime but also serves as a source of income for the government through taxation. A study has shown that the cities of Delhi and Mumbai alone could raise approximately $170 million in taxes on the purchase of cannabis. Thus, with the right policy, governments can regulate the cannabis industry effectively. A maximum threshold for cannabis consumption every week can be prescribed. Only registered individuals above a certain age limit can be permitted to buy cannabis from local pharmacies on producing their identification. These measures have been implemented by Uruguay and have proved to be effective.

Thus, decriminalization and legalization of cannabis have several advantages. In our society today, it is important to break the taboo surrounding cannabis and open up a dialogue at the highest levels of government as well as amongst ourselves to frame a sound policy of regulatory alternatives that focus on reform rather than punishment.

Ankita Amarnath Kamath is a final year student at National Law University Odisha, Cuttack with a keen interest in human rights laws, international law and foreign policy.