Politics Kills, Grass Does Not

Updated: 14 September, 2020 07:15 IST | Ajaz Ashraf | Mumbai

The rage against Rhea Chakraborty is the result of a combination of middle-class elitism, hypocrisy and the criminalisation of marijuana under the NDPS Act - enacted only in 1985 under pressure from US

Representation pic/Getty Images
Representation pic/Getty Images

Ajaz AshrafSixty-seven days before the late actor Sushant Singh Rajput was born in Patna on January 21, 1986, India's hallowed tradition of the use of cannabis began to change because of the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act coming into force. At one stroke was prohibited all types of narcotics, including cannabis products other than bhang.

The NDPS Act decreed that anyone caught possessing far less than even the "small quantity" of marijuana and hashish — defined as 1,000 grams of the former and 100 grams of the latter — could be imprisoned for up to six months, or fined to the extent of Rs 10,000, or both.

Until the NDPS Act came into force, Sushant's city of birth had a fair sprinkling of shops with signboards declaring: "Sarkari ganja aur bhang ki dukan." It was from here the hoi polloi bought their tickets to bliss or respite, as did the children of Patna's elite, many of them students of Delhi University.

On their return from holiday breaks, students would tap government shops to ferry 50 to 100 grams of marijuana to Delhi, where "scoring" even inferior quality of dope invariably entailed a trip to a shady alley or a seedy kiosk masquerading as a tea-shop. Patna's "Manipuri grass" would enliven the first fortnight of every academic session at Delhi University.

Its alumni can easily identify who among bureaucrats, police officers, media personalities, corporate honchos, and even members of the judiciary tripped on cannabis. Yet few among today's power elite will confess to having smoked weed in their student days.

Among the exceptions is MP Tathagata Satpathy, who, in 2015, publicly confessed to having smoked pot in his younger days. Arguing for the removal of the ban on cannabis, Satpathy said, "The thinking is that if you hold a wine glass people will consider you belonging to the upper class. You roll a joint and people will call you charsi. It is an elitist bias."

A combination of elitism and hypocrisy has had people rage against actor Rhea Chakraborty for allegedly securing marijuana for Sushant. Grass did not kill Sushant, although it may have given him a "bum trip", as it always can. Arrested under the NDPS Act, Rhea has denied ever having smoked pot.

Even if Rhea had smoked, she would have had to deny it. This is because the NDPS Act does not define what constitutes consumption. As Neha Singhal and Naveed Ahmad, in a piece for the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy website, wrote, "Does having consumed a narcotic…at any point in your life, however many years ago, make you vulnerable to criminal sanctions for the rest of your life?" The Act does not provide a clue.

Rhea would not have been in the woods had Parliament passed a private member's bill of Dharma Vira Gandhi, a former MP, which was admitted and tabled in 2016 but could not be taken up for discussion. Gandhi's bill sought to amend the NDPS Act and classify drugs in "soft" and "hard" categories. The bill sought to legalise and regulate the cultivation, production, sale, and consumption of soft drugs — marijuana, hashish, opium and opium husk.

Gandhi sought to also decriminalise the consumption of hard drugs — smack, heroin, cocaine and pharmaceutical opioids. Their users, according to the bill, could not be sent to prison. Repeat offenders could be fined up to R20,000, or sent to a rehabilitation centre, or asked to render community service, or all three together.

"As a cardiologist, I can tell you cannabis is a non-lethal, non-killer substance. Drug addicts need treatment, not imprisonment," Gandhi told me. The rationale behind his bill was that with the supply of soft drugs squeezed, consumers would turn to hard drugs, which cause physical and psychological addiction and "degrade" them. Drug mafia push these lethal alternatives because the profits reaped from them, in comparison to cannabis, are massive.

Indeed, a 2018 survey of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences showed that the prevalence of heroin use had grown double to that of opium over the last 14 years. In 2004, 0.5 per cent of Indians consumed opium and 0.2 per cent heroin. In 2018, 1.14 per cent of Indians were using heroin as against 0.5 per cent of them consuming opium. Heroin is inarguably the most addictive and harmful of drugs.

The NDPS Act was enacted under the pressure of the United States, which had then declared a war on drugs. Since then, 17 of its states have decriminalised cannabis. Some have even legalised it. California, for instance, allows commercial sale of cannabis; its residents can possess 30 grams of marijuana and grow six cannabis plants for personal use. Canada, too, has legalised cannabis. In Portugal, possession of drugs is not legal, but in a specified quantity only leads to the possessor being sent for counselling or paying a small fine.

As middle-class hypocrisy claims Rhea as its victim, she would perhaps like to hum Bob Dylan's lines, "…I would not feel so all alone/Everybody must get stoned." Without fear, with the certainty that grass, unlike politics, does not kill.

The writer is a senior journalist

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First Published: 14 September, 2020 06:15 IST

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