Himachal Pradesh has historically been referred to as “Dev Bhoomi”, or the “Abode of Gods”. Ancient Hindu texts believed that the Himalayas were home to Gods like Shiva. Hermits and monks travelled to these mountains to meditate and to find spiritual enlightenment.
It is also home to many indigenous varieties of hemp, which grow freely as a weed all over the lush mountains. It is not surprising that bhang, or “vijaya”, was one of the 5 holy plants for Hindus and held a centreplace in many religious ceremonies, particularly the worship of Shiva.
Many parts of Himachal traditionally produced goods made of hemp fibre such as baskets and slippers, hemp being a significant backbone for Himachal’s economy, particularly in high altitudes where most other crops would not survive. Hemp, or bhang as it is known, is a hardy, reliable crop that can withstand low temperatures and low precipitation.
For many farmers in remote villages, there aren’t any career options other than the ones that have been practiced by endless generations before them, stretching back into antiquity. They know no other way of life.
However, since 1985, the cultivation of the bhang plant has been illegal. Let’s take a look at how this affects the rural economy and impacts different sections of the Himachali population.
To explain some context- 90% of Himachalis live in rural areas, and a majority of them are engaged in agriculture. Conventional methods of chemical farming that have been in use since the green revolution, encourage large scale production of cash crops on big portions of land. Himachal’s uneven terrain is not suitable for monocropping, and the adoption of these methods has led to the reduction of biodiversity in the region.
Fruit cultivation came as a boon to Himachal’s farmers, making the state India’s fruit bowl, but this practice is extremely water intensive. The need for large scale artificial irrigation systems has led to the development of hydel power projects. In the last 3 decades, a lot has changed. Climate change and environmental degradation concerns loom large on Himachal’s farmers, who are now market dependent with dwindling landholdings with each successive generation.
The average farmer holds barely two acres of cultivable land. As a result, the contribution of agriculture to Himachal’s GDP has fallen from 26.5 percent in 1991 to just 8.8% in 2018. India at large is facing an agrarian crisis in recent years, and most strategies to combat this crisis do not take into account environmental damage, the effects of which are far more pronounced in mountainous regions like Himachal Pradesh.
However, Himachal has gained notoriety as a capital for the trade of recreational drugs and narcotics, particularly for foreign tourists and students from all over the country. Convictions under the NDPS act account for 7.7 per cent of crimes in Himachal compared to the national average of 2.8 percent. Himachal has a high rate of overdose related deaths, ranking third in the country on this count. This is only a recent phenomenon associated with the increase in consumption of synthetic drugs- like chitta, cocaine, and heroin.
But the popular imagination conjured up at the word “drugs”- of the half-dead junkie, passed out or in a state of delirium, a deplorable wastrel, out there to spread his zombie-like “disease” definitely extends to bhang users.
The very idea itself spurs a sense of fear, disgust, disdain and fury- all directed at the depraved consumer of illicit substances. This perception prevents conversations about the facts behind drug usage and prevents the spread of actual knowledge.
After the introduction of the NDPS Act which arbitrarily lumped cannabis/bhang as a banned psychoactive substance in the same category as harmful, synthetic drugs like heroin, the economy of recreational substances changed forever. Overnight, India was facing a street drug crisis. This might sound paradoxical but it makes perfect sense from the standpoint of a black market drug dealer- it became important to sell expensive, habit forming drugs which allowed for greater profit margins. Despite the fact that bhang was widely consumed by the rural population and the working class in cities, it simply wasn’t profitable enough to justify the risks.
Bhang/ ganja had always been cheap and abundant, and non-addictive. It could not bring in the profit margins afforded by addictive drugs, for which users are willing to pay any price. The black market “diversified” and introduced newer, more harmful drugs alongside ganja because that is where the big money would come from. It is noteworthy that India had initially resisted the categorization of hemp drugs as banned substances but eventually caved in to pressure from the US government.
Some of the best indigenous bhang varieties grew in the Himalayas, and some of the finest hand-rubbed charas or hashish originated in northern villages where the temperatures were conducive to the growth of higher potency plants. The resin of these plants had been consumed for thousands of years during religious rituals, commonly smoked by monks in a chillum or traditional clay pipe. Shaivites, or Shiva-worshippers, hold the plant sacred. In thousands of years of usage, hemp and its’ derivatives never created a “drug menace”.
The colonial British government noted in 1894, through an official report of a commission established specifically to study the effects of “hemp drugs”,that moderate use is extremely widespread and normalised. The report remarked after examining the interviews of 1200 people from different sections of society, that the moderate use of hemp drugs showed no evidence of physical, mental or moral harm to the individual or to society, infact, it could even be medicinal.
In addition, instances of excessive use were extremely rare, almost mythical, and no reliable evidence could be found as to its’ harmful effects. After visiting mental asylums, the researchers concluded that even in the rarest of rare extreme cases, excessive consumption of hemp drugs can only be consequential to the individual consumer himself.
Hemp cultivation and usage is not responsible for this drug crisis, and the unfair amount of stigma is harmful to farmers, individuals, and society. The “drug” is non-addictive, does not have potential for overdose, and does not produce violent tendencies in users, instead reducing aggression and leading to a relaxed state. Every year, more than 2,50,000 people die of consuming alcohol in India. Alcohol is legal in most states, and prohibition wherever applied has proven highly ineffective, creating a black market for unregulated, often spurious alcohol. In contrast, it is a matter of fact that there have been no reported deaths resulting from bhang consumption in its history spanning thousands of years in virtually every part of the world.
Yet, it remains illegal, and the otherwise well meaning NDPS act prohibits certain parts of the plant while allowing others.The reason for this is that it is impossible to prohibit bhang usage without trampling on the religious freedom of 80% of the country (almost a billion Hindus) to follow their customs.
State governments are allowed to regulate bhang trade on their own- and licenses can be obtained to sell bhang paste made from hemp leaves.
Take the example of Vikram (name changed), a young engineering student who, along with his friend, was caught by the police with a small quantity of charas. Police officers in “drug hubs” are used to profiling passers-by at checkpoints, scanning for tourists, anyone who looks rich or “urban”, and specifically targeting vulnerable college students. The police randomly intercepted Vikram’s motorcycle, conducting a search on no plausible grounds other than the fact that the two boys seemed like they might have ganja or charas on them.
This scenario, unfortunately, is extremely common in tourist areas across India, bringing constables quick bucks through handsome bribes. It is a common violation of an individual’s right to privacy. In Vikram’s case, this incident cost him three years of his life and earned him a permanent record of a criminal conviction. He will suffer in finding a job and will probably be denied visas to foreign countries for the rest of his life. Despite the fact that only one psychoactive substance found in charas is prohibited, namely THC, the full quantity of the contraband is taken into account for conviction, even though the other compound CBD, is perfectly legal.
For a modest Himachali farmer who may want to supplement his meagre income through hemp cultivation, many risks are in store. He could go to jail for upto 10 years, and be fined upto a lakh rupees under the NDPS, where his family’s monthly income might be a few thousand rupees at best. He may have to plant his crops somewhere in the middle of a forest which is only accessible by foot. If discovered, the police might burn the entire patch of land. Worse yet, there are local movements which justifiably wish to combat the growing drug crisis, but are misled by the stigma into destroying the easiest target- the hemp plant. “Bhaang Ukhaado” has a simple objective- uproot the hemp plant.
This supposed solution to the drug crisis, spearheaded by women and students, does little other than direct anger away from the real culprit. To make matters worse, the Himachal government is set to introduce drones to detect and destroy hemp growing in mountains and forests. This practice will drain the resources of a state which is already under 50,000 crores of debt burden.
Burning sacred plants, throwing students in private prisons, and creating criminals out of simple farmers will not save adolescents who get hooked onto chemicals, or reduce the number of overdose related deaths. The fact that growing hemp is illegal creates hurdles in the upliftment of Himachal Pradesh’s economy that could be transformed the embracing what already exists in abundance. Eradicating hemp is a futile exercise, it is neither possible, nor does it address the real problem of the growing black market of harmful narcotics.
Legalizing hemp can be revolutionary for the environment, for farmers living in abject poverty, for addicts and patients of various “incurable” diseases, and also for students like Vikram who suffered far more harm at the hands of a draconian legal provision than they ever would have by consuming the substance in their possession.
On January 8th, 2018, advocate Deven Khanna filed a petition in Shimla High Court seeking legalization of the cultivation of hemp for industrial and medicinal purposes, highlighting that the state of Himachal Pradesh can use section 10 of the NDPS act which allows state governments to regulate licenses for cultivation.
This has immense potential for socio-economic growth, creating income opportunities for small farmers, opening up avenues for eco friendly alternative industrial products, and leading the way for medical research which is being embraced by various countries world-over. Industrial hemp typically has THC percentages under 1% and is not usable for recreational purposes, and medicinal hemp is bred to have high CBD content making it non-psychotropic and maximising therapeutic value.
A number of medicines and extracts can be made from CBD-rich hemp. The Uttarakhand state government has, in fact, already permitted the cultivation of industrial hemp with THC content under 0.3%. The state government accepted these contentions and directed state and central governments to provide scientific reasons for not cultivating hemp. However, in 2019, the government made a turnaround and went back on their statement about allowing controlled cannabis cultivation in Himachal Pradesh.
On a progressive note, Himachal Pradesh Government led by Shri Jai Ram Thakur has always supported farmer initiatives and perhaps, they can show some hope to the local farmers as well. Moreover, Himachal pradesh has always been a progressive state with liberal policies for innovators and investors. “Rising Himachal 2019” will be an opportunity to explore innovative projects and bring in global investors to boost the GDP of Himachal Pradesh. This is an excellent initiative to highlight and push for hemp-related initiatives. Awareness generation is a slow process, but we are optimistic that the Government will slowly begin on the journey to revolutionize the state through hemp cultivation. To submit your project proposal, you can go to-
Read more about the petition here.