By Sonali Acharjee - India Today

In the first week of September, in a sensational twist to the Sushant Singh Rajput death case, the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) arrested the late actor’s girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty, her brother Showik and 10 others for the alleged possession, transportation and purchase of ganja (weed) and charas (hash), all derivatives of the cannabis plant. In its charge-sheet, the NCB says it has recovered 59 grams of weed and five grams of a dark brown substance suspected to be hash from three suspects so far. The quantity recovered is far less than the 1 kilo specified as ‘small quantity’ under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances or NDPS Act, 1985. As Suhas Gokhale, former chief of the Azad Maidan unit of Mumbai’s anti-narcotics cell, declared two days after Rhea’s arrest, “A sadhu’s chillum holds more marijuana than what she is being convicted of.”

Indeed, cannabis consumption is common across the country and does not attract the kind of stigma attached to other narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances being consumed illegally in India. In a 2019 study commissioned by the social justice and empowerment ministry, 31 million people in India were reported to have consumed a cannabis product in the past year, of which 13 million had used weed and hash. Cannabis consumption was higher in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Sikkim, Chhattisgarh and Delhi than the national average. Based on the annual figures held by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNoDC), a 2018 study by German data firm ABCD placed Delhi third on the list of 120 cities with the highest consumption of cannabis, ahead of Los Angeles, Chicago and London. Mumbai was sixth.

In fact, in the past few years, there has been a growing clamour by non-governmental organisations to legalise the recreational use of cannabis, as other countries have done. On November 7, 2019, the Delhi High Court sought the government’s stand on one such petition filed by the Bengaluru-based advocacy non-profit, the Great Legalisation Movement India Trust. The organisation, founded in 2014, wants cannabis removed from the NDPS Act. The legalisation of marijuana, the organisation believes, can help create jobs, battle stress, improve human concentration, resolve medical problems and provide sustainable agricultural incomes, among other things. Cannabis, the petition argued, is integral to the country’s cultural fabric; its criminalisation leads to needless harassment and stigma.

Given this widespread prevalence of cannabis consumption and calls for its decriminalisation, the NCB arrests in the Rajput case have triggered a furious debate across the country on whether the agency’s enthusiasm was misplaced or even hypocritical. Going by the logic of Rhea’s prosecution, cannabis legalisation advocates say, thousands who smoke weed and hash openly during the Kumbh Mela or on Shivratri should be arrested. Defending their action, a top NCB source said that while cannabis use has been widespread in India, its consumption of late has gone up, as have the dangers associated with it. “It has become serious in the sense that every strata of the population is into it, poor, middle-class or rich,” he says. “Illegal imports of the weed from US or Canada have become popular among the upper echelons of society.” Denying that the agency was being vindictive against Chakraborty, the source said, “We are looking at the problem from a professional point of view. Parties where drugs are being misused have become common in Bollywood and other places. By investigating such complaints of drug abuse, we can detect the network of peddlers and the big illegal commercial suppliers. We want to send the message that this is a wrong thing to do and we need to create awareness across agencies and governments to have it eradicated.”