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Cannabis: Ancient Plant, Modern Debate

Cannabis: Ancient Plant, Modern Debate


Cannabis holds the distinction of being one of the oldest psychoactive substances used both in India and globally. While many developed nations such as Canada, the Netherlands, and certain U.S. states have embraced the legalization of recreational cannabis, India maintains strict legal prohibitions on its recreational use, including its forms like ganja, charas, hashish, and their derivatives. This stark contrast has sparked numerous debates and public interest litigations within India, centering on the potential benefits of legalizing recreational cannabis use.

The cannabis or hemp plant has various parts, each with different uses and effects. The flower, known for its many names, contains a special compound called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which can heighten the senses and create a 'high' feeling. Other parts like the stems, leaves, and seeds are used to extract a different compound called cannabidiol (CBD). Unlike THC, CBD is not psychoactive, meaning it doesn't make you feel high. Both THC and CBD interact with the body's endocannabinoid system (ECS) to offer health benefits, but they work in distinct ways.

Cannabis cultivation dates back to at least the 3rd millennium BCE, with evidence of its psychoactive use around 500 BCE in Central Asia's Pamir Mountains. However, legal restrictions on cannabis have been in place since the 14th century. In the 20th century, most countries banned its possession, use, and cultivation.

The landscape has changed significantly in recent times. Uruguay made history in 2013 by legalizing recreational cannabis use. Following suit are countries like Canada, Georgia, Germany, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, South Africa, and Thailand. In the U.S., recreational cannabis is legal in 24 states, 3 territories, and the District of Columbia, but it remains illegal at the federal level. Australia has legalized it only in the Australian Capital Territory. These shifts reflect changing attitudes and evolving understandings of cannabis use and regulation globally.


  1. Spiritual- Cannabis has a long history of being regarded as sacred in various religions and has been used as an entheogen—a substance used in religious or spiritual contexts—in the Indian subcontinent since ancient times, notably during the Vedic period. The Atharva Veda, which dates back to around 1400 BCE, contains some of the earliest mentions of cannabis's sacred status in this region. In more recent times, the spiritual use of cannabis has been promoted by followers of the Rastafari movement. They consider cannabis a sacrament and use it to aid in meditation and spiritual practices.

  1. Medical- Medical cannabis, also known as medical marijuana, involves using cannabis to help manage diseases or alleviate symptoms, although there isn't one universally accepted definition. Some studies indicate that cannabis can be beneficial in reducing nausea and vomiting during chemotherapy, stimulating appetite in individuals with HIV/AIDS, or managing chronic pain and muscle spasms. However, the evidence supporting its effectiveness for other medical purposes isn't strong enough to make definitive statements about its safety or efficacy. 

  2. Recreational- Consuming cannabis can lead to both psychoactive and physical effects. The sensation of being "high" can vary significantly, influenced by factors such as the user's previous cannabis experience and the type of cannabis used. When cannabis is smoked, a euphoric feeling can set in within minutes of inhaling it, contributing to its recreational appeal for some users.


Cannabis holds a profound historical and cultural significance in India, steeped in legends and religious texts. Its earliest known mention is found in The Vedas, ancient Hindu scriptures believed to have been compiled between 2000 to 1400 B.C.

According to The Vedas, cannabis was revered as one of five sacred plants, housing a guardian angel within its leaves. Described as a source of joy and happiness, cannabis was seen as a liberator, helping humans find delight and alleviate fear and anxiety.

The god Shiva is closely associated with cannabis, known as bhang in India. Legend has it that after a heated argument with his family, Shiva sought solace in a leafy plant in the fields. Sampling its leaves upon awakening, he felt instantly refreshed and declared the plant his favorite food, earning him the title Lord of Bhang.

During medieval times, soldiers consumed bhang before battles, akin to how Westerners would drink whiskey for courage. One tale recounts how Sikh leader Gobind Singh's soldiers, facing an elephant armed with a sword, were terrified until a dose of bhang and opium gave one soldier the bravery and agility to defeat the beast, leading to victory in battle. These stories reflect the deep-rooted cultural and historical connections between cannabis and Indian traditions.


Despite its rich history, cannabis has encountered obstacles for both spiritual and medicinal purposes in India over the centuries. The onset of British colonial rule in the 18th century brought increased scrutiny to cannabis due to cultural misunderstandings and conflicting legal viewpoints.

In the 1890s, the Britishers appointed the Indian Hemp Commission to investigate the production, trade, and effects of cannabis consumption. After studying 1193 individuals across 30 Indian cities, they concluded that the effects of cannabis were "harmless in moderation." Recognizing its religious importance, the British opted to tax cannabis instead of prohibiting it.

During the drug revolution of the 1960s and 70s in the West, India initially opposed the discrimination against natural therapeutic herbs. However, global pressures and international stances on narcotics eventually led the Indian government to align with the classification of cannabis as a dangerous substance. This shift reflected broader changes in attitudes towards cannabis on a global scale.

In 1985, India implemented the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act to regulate various substances, including cannabis. This act classified cannabis as a Schedule I substance, imposing stringent regulations on its cultivation, possession, and consumption.

Despite these legal challenges, cannabis's spiritual significance in ancient India remains evident. It played a central role in connecting devotees with the divine and fostering a sense of unity with the universe.

Today, while India's cannabis laws remain restrictive, the legacy of its ancient use continues to inspire curiosity. As India grapples with modern complexities, the profound connection between cannabis and spirituality serves as a reminder of the enduring influence of plants on culture and human experience.


  • Under Section 20 of the NDPS Act, the possession, trade, and consumption of cannabis are deemed illegal, carrying penalties of fines up to Rs. 1 lakh and imprisonment for up to 10 years, depending on the quantity involved. However, there are exceptions to this prohibition. The central government allows the use of cannabis for medical, scientific, industrial, and horticultural purposes. Recognizing the distinctions within the cannabis plant, products derived from its various parts—leaves, stems, seeds, and fibers—are treated differently from those obtained from its flowers.

  • In Maharashtra, the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949 prohibits the manufacture, possession, or consumption of bhang and substances containing bhang without the appropriate license. This legislation places strict controls on the production and use of bhang-related products within the state.

  • In Assam, the sale, possession, purchase, and consumption of ganja and bhang are all strictly prohibited under the Assam Ganja and Bhang Prohibition Act of 1958.

  • Odisha stands out as a state in India where marijuana is legal, and residents often use 'chillums' to enjoy it within the state's borders. 

  • Uttarakhand holds the distinction of being the first Indian state to legalize commercial hemp farming. This groundbreaking move has inspired many other hilly states to consider allowing regulated production of hemp and marijuana. The appeal lies in the fact that these crops are rich in potential and require less water compared to many other traditional crops.


Legalizing weed in India could bring about numerous benefits. Firstly, establishing a legal market would ensure greater safety and quality assurance for consumers. This would reduce the risks associated with purchasing illegal substances, such as victimization, legal sanctions, search costs (especially for first-time buyers), and the psychological discomfort of engaging in illegal activities.

Secondly, legalizing weed would generate substantial tax revenue for the government. Cannabis is a high-value crop, and a legal market would contribute significantly to tax coffers. Additionally, it would create employment opportunities across various sectors once the industry is regulated, leading to job creation.

Thirdly, legalizing weed would allow India to explore and harness the medicinal and therapeutic benefits of cannabis. The government could facilitate research, clinical trials, and the development of cannabis-based medicines, benefiting patients and advancing healthcare.

Lastly, decriminalizing weed would offer significant environmental advantages. Cannabis can replace many products currently causing environmental harm with eco-friendly, biodegradable, and renewable alternatives. This shift can reduce the entire chain of environmental impact from extraction to disposal, promoting sustainability.

The harmful side effects of cannabis are generally lower than those of alcohol, and as a medicinal product, it often has fewer side effects than traditional allopathic drugs. Hemp protein, considered a nutritional superfood, offers extensive health benefits and has been deemed safe to consume by the FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India). As more research delves into this area, we can expect a surge in high-quality and safe hemp products across India.

For individuals dealing with lifelong ailments, undergoing cancer treatments, experiencing chronic pain, or facing digestion issues, full-spectrum cannabis extracts are now available in India. 

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