Cannabis in India – Laws, Use, and History

Cannabis has been illegal in India since 1985. Despite this fact, it’s still widely used across the country, and is valued not only as a social pastime, but also as an integral part of some religious practices. Indeed, cannabis use is mentioned in The Vedas (the Hindu sacred text) and Shiva is sometimes referred to as the ‘Lord of Bhang’.

Cannabis laws in India

Can you possess and use cannabis in India?

Possession and use of cannabis in India are both illegal, according to India’s Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. Penalties are relatively severe for those caught with cannabis on their person. If caught with a small quantity of cannabis, the individual may be sentenced to up to one year in prison or a fine of up to 10,000 rupees, or both.

If the quantity they’re caught with is “lesser than commercial quantity but greater than small quantity”, the prison sentence can be extended to as long as 10 years, with a fine of 100,000 rupees. For “commercial quantities”, the term of imprisonment is 10 to 20 years, plus a fine of 100,000 to 200,000 rupees.

Repeat offenders who are caught with 20 kilograms or more of hashish, or any product containing 500 grams of THC or more, may even be subject to the death penalty.

Consumption is regarded as a less serious offence, with the largest prison sentence being up to one year. In some cases, this is limited to a maximum of six months, or a fine of up to 10,000 rupees (or both).

Despite the risk of imprisonment, cannabis consumption is common in India. In a recent study, New Delhi and Mumbai both ranked in the top 10 cities worldwide in terms of numbers of people using the drug. New Delhi was in third place; beaten only by New York and Karachi.

Use of bhang

Some parts in the country permit the use of bhang, particularly during the religious festival of Holi. Bhang is an edible product, made using cannabis leaves and buds, and it has been traditionally used for centuries.

Use of bhang is especially commonplace in the northern regions of the country; especially in Mathura, an ancient town that’s regarded as a place of religious significance for Hindus. It’s thought that bhang consumption was intruded here by Krishna himself.

Varanasi is famous for its bhang production. On the ghats, people use a mortar and pestle to squash the cannabis into a green paste. Then they add milk, ghee, and spices, and use this bhang base to make Thandai. Sometimes bhang is also mixed with ghee and sugar to create a halva, or little chewy balls called golees.

Can you sell cannabis in India?

Selling cannabis is also illegal in India. The penalties are the same for selling as they are for possession; with the punishments increasing in severity, depending on the quantity of cannabis the individual was caught trying to sell.

Trafficking is regarded as a serious offence, and if caught, the individual will be sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison, and they’ll receive a fine of 100,000 to 200,000 rupees. In some circumstances, this fine may be larger, based on the judge’s discretion.

Certain scenarios may incur a higher prison sentence. These include:

  • The threat or use of violence by the offender
  • The offender holding a public office at the time
  • The involvement of minors in the sale
  • The sale taking place near an educational establishment or social service facility – or any other location that’s used by students for education, sports or social activities
  • The individual working as part of an organised gang

The threat of prison isn’t having much effect on drug traffickers in India, though. Police seizures of cannabis are commonplace in the country, and the quantities of cannabis being smuggled is often substantial. In June 2019, the authorities seized over 3,000 kilograms of it in Odisha alone, and that was just from one raid.

Like many other drug traffickers in the world, Indian dealers are coming up with increasingly sophisticated ways to avoid police detection; such as growing cannabis at home with hydroponics, selling it using the ‘dark web’, or telling the authorities that it’s medicine for their cows.

A 2018 International Narcotics Control Board report revealed that India is one of the world’s most significant drug-smuggling hubs, accounting for 6% of all herbal cannabis seizures worldwide. This clearly demonstrates the extent of the issue.

Can you grow cannabis in India?

Cannabis cultivation is illegal, unless it’s for scientific or research purposes, or for industrial use. In each of these incidences, permission must be obtained from the government first.

If caught growing cannabis illegally, the offender may be imprisoned for up to 10 years, and they will also have to pay a fine of 100,000 rupees.

Although cannabis cultivation is illegal, this isn’t too much of a problem for the country’s cannabis consumers or dealers, as the plant grows abundantly in the wild. This is especially the case in the mountainous northern regions, like Himachal Pradesh.

In Himachal Pradesh, many of the farmers also harvest cannabis plants, but they usually haven’t actively cultivated it. Instead, it naturally flourishes in between the other crops. Local reports suggest that, providing the farmers only grow and use it privately, the police don’t often intervene. The authorities only usually take action if the cannabis is being sold on to others.

One farmer comments: “It’s a very grey area. It’s a very big country and difficult to actually implement laws. It’s not affecting anybody and it’s not bothering anybody, and if it’s part of your tradition and your custom, no-one can stop you. We have all of these babas [respected older men] smoking openly all the time. It’s part of what they do.”

Is CBD legal in India?

CBD doesn’t contain large enough amounts of THC to produce a ‘high’. As such, it’s legal to purchase, use and sell it in India.

Can cannabis seeds be sent to India?

Cannabis seeds are legal to use, buy and sell in the country, but the seed industry is regulated by the Indian government. The legalisation of seeds is largely based on the fact that they’re used in religious ceremonies. However, due to the fact that seed sales are regulated, this means that sending them into the country in the post is a legal ‘grey area’.

Medicinal cannabis in India

There is currently no official medicinal cannabis programme in India; though there is limited access to cannabis-based medicinal products. At present, these drugs are difficult to obtain, not to mention expensive. Fortunately, this looks like it might be set to change in the future.

The country’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research has been researching the effectiveness of cannabis when used to treat symptoms associated with cancer, epilepsy, and sickle cell anaemia. Additionally, researchers are exploring whether cannabis’s active properties could be useful in surgery too.

Rajendra Badwe, director of the Tata Memorial Centre in Mumbai, comments: “Suppose cannabis can put the cells in the body in a ‘state of bliss’ as they do to a human being, and if a similar effect is there on tumour cells too, can we use this state of non-reaction to extirpate cancer cells?” He adds, “nowhere else has this been explored.”

At the time of writing, it’s anticipated that two medicinal cannabidiol products will be produced in India soon. By manufacturing the drugs domestically (rather than importing from abroad), the cost will be dramatically reduced, making them more readily available for patients.

Ayurvedic medicine

Cannabis has played a role in Indian Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. The ayurvedic names for the plant demonstrate how highly it was held in regard – ‘siddhi’, which means ‘subtle power’ or ‘achievement’, and ‘vijaya’, which means ‘the one who conquers’.

Ayurvedic practitioners believe that the plant stimulates the nervous system and acts as an aphrodisiac, before becoming more sedative in nature. They recommend against prolonged, excessive use, stating that it unbalances the three forces in the body (vata, pitta, and kapha). This, they say, can result in problems with digestion, depression, sexual impotence, and wasting of the body.

Ayurvedic practitioners use cannabis in limited quantities to treat high blood pressure. They also recommend it to martial artists, as a way of promoting better concentration. The juice of the leaf is used to combat dandruff and hair parasites, and inflammation in the ear. Dried leaf powder helps wounds to heal, and fresh leaves are used on skin infections and rashes. The plant also has several other uses, such as treating diarrhoea, stimulating digestion, and tackling insomnia.

Industrial hemp in India

Although industrial hemp cultivation was made legal (with a licence) in 1985, it wasn’t until 2018 that the first licence to grow it was granted.

At present, industrial hemp is only grown in Uttarakhand. The first cultivation licence was given to the Indian Industrial Hemp Association, a non-profit company that promotes industrial uses of the plant.

Rohit Sharma, founder and president of the company, comments to BusinessLine: “We will commence cultivation of non-narcotic hemp soon, with the initial focus of creating a seed bank. The cultivation will be taken up in villages in Pauri Garhwal region.”

He also adds: “We tried to figure out why India is not tapping on this $1 trillion industry, unlike advanced economies in Europe and North America, and even China. We then realised that though the authorities are interested, they had little idea how to proceed on this.”

Good to know

If you are travelling to India (or currently live there), you may be interested to know the following:

  • New Delhi and Mumbai were found to have some of the lowest priced cannabis in the world; priced at around $4 to $5 per gram. However, the cannabis on offer in the cities is often regarded as inferior quality. At the other end of the scale, India also has one of the most expensive types of hashish, which grows in the mountainous northern regions.
  • Although cannabis use is illegal in India, it’s been traditionally used for centuries, and is regarded as a culturally acceptable pastime. Reports claim that it’s relatively easy to get hold of in most of the country’s major cities.
  • A recent study by AIIMS showed that over seven million people use cannabis in India. However, this is not many when compared to alcohol use, with nearly 60 million reportedly being addicted to it.

Cannabis history

Cannabis has been grown and used in India for thousands of years. The Vedas (sacred Hindu texts) provide the earliest mention of cannabis, and date back to as early as 2000 BC. In The Vedas, cannabis is listed as one of the five ‘essential plants’, along with barley and soma, and was believed to offer numerous health benefits.

Shiva and cannabis

The Hindu god Shiva is often associated with the cannabis plant. According to the ancient texts, after an argument with his family, Shiva went into the fields and fell asleep under a plant. When he awoke, he tasted its leaves, and felt immediately refreshed. This plant, as you may have guessed, was cannabis. After eating it, Shiva declared it to be his favourite food, which earned him the name ‘the Lord of Bhang’. This is why Sensi Seeds named one of our strains after this particular deity!

Bhang, fighting and food

Since those ancient times, cannabis has been firmly rooted in Indian culture. In the Middle Ages, Indian warriors would often drink bhang to give them strength and agility. Bhang is added to other foods to create special dishes and drinks, and it’s seen as a social substance, in a way that’s not dissimilar to alcohol in the western world.

British attempt at prohibition

After colonising India, the British commissioned a large-scale study, examining the use of cannabis in the country. They were concerned that the plant was adversely affecting people’s mental health. Over 1,000 interviews were conducted during this study, both by British and Indian medical experts.

The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report concluded that there was no link between psychoses and cannabis. It also clearly stated that banning the drug was unjustifiable, given how important it was to the Hindu faith. 

Banning cannabis

International pressure made it hard for the Indian government to keep cannabis legal. After 1961’s ‘single convention on narcotic drugs’ was signed by several countries around the world, India was one of the few to protest its intolerance to organic substances like cannabis.

By 1985, India’s government finally gave into the pressure, and created the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. This made cannabis illegal for the first time in the country’s history.

Cannabis in the Himalayan villages

In the remote villages near the Himalayan mountains, several farmers openly encourage the growth of charas (hashish). Charas is considered by many to be the finest hashish in the world, with a single gram of the resin costing as much as $20 in Western countries.

The high-quality hashish has put the villages firmly on the ‘cannabis tourism’ map. One notable location is Malana, which was so often visited by tourists that it eventually had to ban them from visiting. Malana is the home of the much-celebrated cannabis strain, Malana Cream.

Attitudes towards cannabis

Despite the fact that cannabis is illegal in India, it’s still widely used across the country. Thanks to its religious significance, it’s regarded as socially acceptable for the most part, and bhang is openly consumed without fear of arrest.

Will it be legalised in the future?

India has never perceived cannabis as negatively as some other countries in the world. As such, it seems possible that its government may one day decide to legalise it once more. Certainly, the country is taking progressive steps towards making medicinal cannabis more readily available, and it looks as though the industrial hemp industry may be set to grow too.

  • Disclaimer:
    While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this article, it is not intended to provide legal advice, as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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    Sensi Seeds

    The Sensi Seeds Editorial team has been built throughout our more than 30 years of existence. Our writers and editors include botanists, medical and legal experts as well as renown activists the world over including Lester Grinspoon, Micha Knodt, Robert Connell Clarke, Maurice Veldman, Sebastian Maríncolo, James Burton and Seshata.
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    Maurice Veldman

    Maurice Veldman is a member of the Dutch Association of Criminal Lawyers and one of the Netherlands’ most notable cannabis lawyers. With 25 years’ experience in the field, his knowledge of criminal and administrative law supports cannabis sellers and hemp producers by addressing the inequalities between the individual and the state.
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