Cannabis: A Source of Useful Pharma Compounds Neglected in India

February 20, 2017

In Europe, and other neighboring countries in the New World, where cannabis was introduced quite late, is seems that more recently, it is being cultivated on an increasing scale as a valuable crop for industrial products, whereas in India, where it has been cultivated since as early as 2000 BCE, as a fiber and food crop, the cultivation today seems to be dwindling. Cannabis is the earliest food, fiber, medicinal, psychoactive and oil yielding cultivated plant and for centuries ranked as one of the most important agricultural crop of the orient. However, in India, like the rest of the modern world, cannabis is considered an illegal substance. Now that we are seeing a reform with Cannabis in the United States, could it be possible that we will start to see the same in places like India? First, let’s take a closer look at the history of Cannabis in India, and what it was used for there in the first place.

The History of Marijuana in India

Cannabis actually has a long history in India, and is an integral part of Indian Hindu culture. It is mentioned multiple times in sacred Hindu texts, in association with legends and religion. According to The Vedas (one of the most well-known sacred Hindu book of texts), cannabis was one of five sacred plants and a guardian angel lived in its leaves. The Vedas call cannabis a source of happiness that was compassionately given to humans to help us attain delight and lose fear (Abel, 1980). Their god, Shiva is frequently associated with cannabis, which is called bhang in India, and Hindus highly associate cannabis with their most powerful deity, which is why its use is still so prevalent today.

Bhang has been popular in India since the beginning of recorded history and comes in the form of a drink. Nuts and spices, like almonds, pistachios, poppy seeds, pepper, ginger and sugar are combined with bhang and boiled with milk. However, today it is more common to see people consuming it by rolling it into small balls and eating it.

Other ways to consume cannabis in India include ganja and charas. Much stronger than bhang, ganja is made from the flowers and upper leaves of the female plant, whereas Charas is the strongest preparation out of the three, and is made from blooming flowers usually up in the mountains, and is similar in strength to hashish. The main difference is Charas contains a lot of resin, but both are smoked in a pipe called a chillum. The pipe is usually shared among 2 to 5 people, making smoking a communal activity.

In the late 1890s, representatives from the British colony in India, found the use of cannabis a little excessive, and concern grew among them that the abuse of cannabis was endangering the health of the native people. The British government asked the government of India to appoint a commission to look into the cultivation of the plant, preparation of drugs from it, trade in those drugs, the social and moral impact of its consumption, and possible prohibition. Over 1,000 standardized interviews were conducted throughout India by British and Indian medical experts. The commission was systematic and thorough, as it sampled a large and diverse group of people in a range of situations, from farmers to hospital psychiatrists. After years of detailed work, The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report produced six volumes of data and conclusions. Commissioners were particularly concerned with whether or not cannabis caused psychoses. After years of thorough and well conducted research, The Commission concluded that suppressing the use of herbal cannabis (bhang) would be totally unjustifiable. They concluded that its use is very ancient, has some religious sanction among Hindus, and is harmless in moderation. In fact, more harm was done by alcohol.

Current Cannabis Laws in India

Cannabis continues to be available in India even in the 21st century, however since The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act which was passed in 1985, cannabis was prohibited from being produced, manufactured, and cultivated, as well no person can possess, sell, purchase, transport, store or consume any narcotic drug or psychotropic substance. The United States began to campaign for a worldwide law against all drugs, following the adoption of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961. However, India opposed the move, and withstood American pressure to make cannabis illegal for nearly 25 years. In the 1980s, American pressure increased, and in 1985, the Rajiv Gandhi government succumbed and enacted the NDPS Act, banning all narcotic drugs in India.


Although the laws in India states that cannabis is strictly prohibited under the NDPS Act, bhang, ganja and charas as still seen and commonly used by locals even today, particularly during religious holidays such as Holi. Charas is still smoked, and bhang is still drunk all around the country, as the local natives still revere cannabis as an integral part of their culture. Although it is illegal to produce cannabis in scale for commercial purposes, local people still seem to find ways to have a hidden stash somewhere in their houses for special occasions. Hopefully with more and more states in the United States jumping on the legalization bandwagon, we might see the cultivation of cannabis increase in the years to come, but for now I think they are doing just fine.

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