Pubdate: Sat, 21 Feb 2004
Source: Business Standard (India)
Copyright: 2004, Business Standard Ltd.
Author: Arvind Kala


India needs to amend its skewed laws to legalise the use of hashish,
says Arvind Kala

Why doesn't a globalising India harmonise its drug laws with the rest
of the western world? Holland, which legalised cannabis (charas) way
back in 1976, has 1200 licensed 'coffee shops' where any individual
over 18 can buy up to five grams of marijuana - enough for five 'joints'.

Portugal has no criminal penalties for use, possession and acquisition
of even illicit drugs in quantities up to a 10-day supply. Spain,
Belgium, and Italy allow a person to use hashish privately. And in
Britain's Brixton area of South London, the police don't prosecute a
marijuana-user, they just confiscate his stuff.

In fact, most of western Europe, Canada, and pockets of the US have
concluded that drug-users should be left alone because they harm
nobody but themselves.

But in India, an individual with a few grams of charas gets 10 years
in jail while the punishment is just seven years for a robbery,
kidnapping, or maiming a child for beggary. Not just that, the 10-year
sentence comes with a Rs 1 lakh fine, bail during trial is difficult,
and a second conviction attracts the death penalty.

The result is that this draconian 1985 law has been an instrument of
extortion in the hands of the Indian police for 19 long years. Though
the 10-year prison sentence under the NDPS (Narcotic & Psychotropic
Substances) Act is supposedly for drug traffickers while users get
just one to three years, in practice most offenders are threatened
with prosecution as traffickers to make them pay up.

Many of the victims are India's poorest people like coolies and
rickshaw-wallahs who smoke charas or ganja to seek temporary oblivion
from the wretchedness of their daily lives.

Arrests under the NDPS increase every year. They rose 10 per cent from
22,866 in 1999 to 25,126 in 2000. Ironically in India, the less
serious a crime, the higher is the chance of punishment.

The conviction rate for murder is 35 per cent, it's 29 per cent for
rape, 29 per cent for kidnapping and abduction, but it's 50 per cent
under the NDPS Act. And the cases awaiting trial accumulate with
passing years. They numbered nearly 90,000 in the year 2000 and they
clog our already over-burdened law courts.

The NDPS Act also hurts India economically. For decades, India has
gained tourist dollars from tens of thousands of backpackers who come
here for an inexpensive holiday and also to smoke hashish.

In Manali I've been witness to how their spending fuels the local
economy and enriches the locals. The foreigners rent village rooms,
dine at roadside eating houses, buy handicrafts, they hire local
motorcycle and local guides to take them trekking, their overseas
calls sustain STD booths, and their need for Net access has given
birth to Internet cafes.

But the foreign visitors have dropped by 80 per cent because they've
been scared away by the Manali police cracking down on and extorting
money from them.

The backpackers are stopped, searched, and they have to pay good money
to avert arrest if they are found with even a tiny amount of hashish.

These horror stories of cop terror have spread through the world's
back-packer communities, so they avoid India and head for fun-filled
Thailand or Laos which ignore pot smoking by foreigners because the
visitors bring tourist dollars.

So India's loss becomes Thailand or Laos' gain. The Manali story of
cop harassment is repeated in Goa where back-packers have also
dwindled in number.

Why does India harm itself this way? If we want tourist dollars from
westerners, our laws must decriminalise personal drug use. If we do
this, we may get some of the millions of Europeans, North Americans,
and Australians who like the recreational use of hashish or marijuana

As a Third World country we are a uniquely placed destination for
western backpackers. We are a democracy, lots of us speak English, we
have fascinating Godmen, and we are the world's only Hindu
civilisation because India contains 90 per cent of the world's Hindus.
(Nepal is too small to count.) White foreigners feel safe here, but
they don't in Africa or in Islamic countries from the Middle East to

Attracting westerners apart, ganja- and charas-smoking has been a part
of Indian village life for centuries. Even today India's villagers
call these mild hallucinogens Shivji ki booti, or a gift from Lord

Till 25 years ago, many Indian states had licensed ganja shops, and
even today, bhang is sold legally, bhang being made from dried and
ground cannabis leaves which produce a weaker high than charas made
from the plant's resin and buds.

Justifying Holland's 'coffee shops' a Dutch minister recently said
that people died from alcohol, cigarettes, heroin, and cocaine, but he
had never heard of anyone dying from marijuana. The Indian state
always believed that.

Besides, why should the Indian state interfere with and penalise a
drug-user's private behaviour? Even if he harms himself, so what?
People die from excessive smoking, drinking, over-eating, and in
accidents while climbing mountains.

But they aren't stopped from engaging in their indulgences. So a
European or American tourist who wants to smoke hashish on a Goa
beachside should also be left alone. His spending sustains local Goans.

The greatest tragedy with the NDPS Act is that it's selectively
enforced. Tens of thousands of sadhus in India smoke hashish and ganja
but they aren't arrested because they have nothing that can be extorted.

But catch a Fardeen Khan or a rich Delhi cocaine-user (or a European)
for a violation and it's a bonanza for the cops. But a mindless
enforcement of the NDPS Act ruins even India's poorest people.

Three years ago Julakha, a poor woman slum-dweller of Delhi with five
small children, was jailed for ten years for possessing seven grams (a
teaspoon) of heroin.

Incidently, this punishment is mandatory as India's judges sometimes
lament when they put away a poor individual for a decade. The law
doesn't permit them to reduce the sentence.

Contrast this Stalinist mind-set with Europe and America, where the
state of Alaska allows people to grow and consume marijuana at home.
Belgium books a hashish-user only if he's a problem to others.

And several states in America have passed ballot initiatives
legalising the personal use of marijuana for medical purposes. Let's
learn from these nations. Let's repeal the NDPS Act.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake