Decoding Cannabis Regulation: Past, Present and Future

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In a startling move, the UN has removed cannabis from the category of most dangerous drugs in December, 2020. The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs had voted in favour of reclassification of cannabis by virtue of which it was removed from the category of most dangerous drugs. Another fascinating fact about it is that India voted in favour of such a deletion, raising eyebrows on the future course of action India might take. This makes it necessary to know the history and regulation mechanism of cannabis in India.

History and Regulation

Cannabis was used in India from the Vedic times. The commentaries and translations of Atharveda, in particular, reveal that it was considered a medicinal plant, highly useful in the treatment of a number of ailments, particularly with regard to reducing stress and pain. ‘Bhang’ has religious and cultural importance in India and is used in festivals like Holi and Mahashivratri.

It was first during the reign of Britishers that attempts were made to regulate the use of cannabis. The Britishers started by taxing the substance citing reasons of ‘good health and sanity’. The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission and its report during the colonial rule was an important development in this regard. The Commission tried to highlight the fact that usage of such substances, especially excessive usage, can have ill effects on the health of consumers.

The most important development at the international level was, however, in the form of the Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs, 1961 (“1961 Convention”) whereby cannabis was included in the category of hard drugs. It is with regard to this Convention only that the status of cannabis has changed by virtue of the United Nations Convention on Narcotics Drugs in December, 2020.

As mentioned earlier, cannabis has continued to hold religious as well as cultural importance in the country and hence, India was not in favour of the outcome of the 1961 Convention, in terms of the status it conferred to cannabis. At the time of negotiations as well, India had raised its voice. However, as a compromise, India agreed to accommodate the definition of cannabis as given by the 1961 Convention but excluded ‘bhang’ from its purview. This also concluded with the enactment of Narcotic and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985.

Narcotic and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985

Cannabis was not considered as illegal in India before 1985 and there was no prohibition on its usage in any form whatsoever. It was only after the 1961 Convention whereby the UN tried to highlight the ill effects of drugs and substances that the pressure started to build so as to come up with a law to regulate such substances. It was during the mid-1980s that twenty-five year period ended with India finally succumbing to the international pressure and enacting NDPS Act, 1985 (“Act”). The Act aims to “prohibit and regulate the production/manufacturing/cultivation, possession, sale, purchasing, transport, storage, and/or consumption of any narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances”. The Act, however, provided an exception to cannabis in the form of ‘bhang’, keeping in line with its religious importance.

The Act is very stringent and one can clearly infer this not only from the punishments and fines it provides but also from the fact that it makes getting bail a tough nut to crack. A special agency called the Narcotics Control Bureau (“NCB”) has also been constituted for enforcement of the provisions of the Act.

The Act has undergone a number of amendments which have not only made the provisions of the Act stringent but has also reformed the Act. As highlighted in the case of NP Basheer v. State of Kerala, “the Act provides strict punishments for the traffickers but envisages reformative approach towards addicts”. This was seen in the case of Bollywood actor Fardeen Khan who “was granted immunity from prosecution after he went through a de-addiction process”.

Contemporary Scenario

While the ‘drugs’ were often shown in the movies and web series, especially while portraying the criminals and mafia. The NDPS Act has come in the spotlight in last few months following the unfortunate demise of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput. The investigation of the case had opened a number of doors with NCB taking prompt actions and investigating many entertainment industry artists like Shraddha Kapoor, Deepika Padukone etc. There have been many raids and arrests throughout the country.

At a time, when the NCB and drug regulation which is very active in the country, the stance of India voting in favour of exclusion of cannabis from the category of most dangerous drugs might come as a shock to many. However, it must be remembered that India never whole-heartedly accepted the regulation of cannabis.

Due to the medical benefits cannabis has, many countries around the world have allowed its usage for medical purposes. In the last few years, many conferences have been held all over India for the legalisation of cannabis for medical purposes. Our Central Government minister Maneka Gandhi had also raised her voice in favour of legalisation of cannabis for medical reasons. Following such efforts, PMO directed an examination of the potential benefits of cannabis. A study conducted by research body under AYUSH has shown that cannabis was successful in reducing pain in cancer patients. India’s first cannabis clinic was opened in Bangalore in February, 2020 which sells cannabis-infused tablets and oils.


The medical benefits of cannabis have been realized by India from Vedic times and it was only due to international pressure that India had to regulate cannabis. While no one can deny the ill effects of cannabis on the health of a person and also on the cognitive abilities, especially following excessive use, the medical benefits of the plant cannot be ignored. On one hand, the strict actions taken by NCB have created a wave against the use of drugs, while on the other hand, the efforts taken in the country itself which aim at harbouring the medical benefits of cannabis tell a different story. With India voting in favour of removal of cannabis from the category of most dangerous drugs at the international level, it is believed that there would be a legal reform in India by virtue of which use of cannabis would become legal, at least for the medical industry, to which it can be a bliss.

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