By Romesh Bhattacharji (GDPO Technical Advisor)
Cannabis use in India is thousands of years old. It is traditional, cultural and linked to many indigenous rituals. As such, to believe that modern, and largely externally imposed, laws can prevent its cultivation and use is little more than wishful thinking. Until 1985 Indian law essentially ignored cannabis. Then came the extremely severe Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act that was inspired by the UN drug control conventions, specifically the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Overnight millions of cannabis users became culpable, and thousands ended up in jail every year. Despite this severe law, cannabis cultivation and use has increased all over India. Today the plant grows alongside country roads, major highways, in villages, towns and cities.
The Parvati Valley, in the mountainous Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh (HP) (See map 1), was once known for apples, peaches, hydro-electric (hydel) projects and mountaineering. However, for the past two decades Parvati, and all its side valleys, have become better known for hashish-cannabis resin. One of its tributaries is the rowdy Malana River, which has, about half way to its glacial source, the only village along its course.
Map 1: Location of Malana
Malana village, perched on the mountainside 2,652 metres above sea level, is about an hour’s steep walk above the River. Authorities in HP have linked all but nine of its 17,495 villages by motor roads. Eight of them remain inaccessible by car because the imposing terrain is still to be subdued.
Malana does not have a road, not just because of the terrain, but also because its inhabitants do not want it. It would, after all, allow authorities access to the village without warning and risk the increasingly profitable cannabis trade. Moreover, and somewhat ironically, the State Government is not too keen to force a road as it wants to preserve a myth of Malana being one of the oldest so-called democracies in the world. Malana has a presiding deity called Jamlu Devta. This deity used to ‘appoint’ an all male village council of eleven, who then administered the village. In reality, there was clearly little democratic about this council, but it was a good story. A few years ago, the State Government superseded this council with an elected one. The present pradhan (head) is a woman, which could never have happened under the earlier ‘democratic’ dispensation.
Change is in the air; some might say, at last. A modern school building is being constructed and it seems that the village will soon be accessible by motor vehicles. Despite continued opposition from the village, a road has now come to within three kilometers. So, have three multi megawatt hydro-electric projects called Malana I, II and III.
I first visited this village in October 1964. At that time, friends and I had to trek from Bhuntar, about 45 kilometres away. We were going over the Chanderkhani pass (3660 metres above sea level) to Nagar in the Beas Valley. Malana was steeped in the superstitious ignorance of the stone-age. Even leather was not allowed inside the village. Subsistence farming and shepherding were their only sources of livelihood. We did not know what cannabis looked like, but our guide pointed out these plants growing wild above the village, and said that they were offered to Jamlu Devta.
By the early 1970s, cannabis in the village was getting attention from elsewhere. At that time and in the midst of the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s and 1970s, travelling ‘hippies’ noticed that these cannabis plants were superior to others elsewhere, and soon there was a steady demand for it amongst the ‘hippie’ community within and passing through India. As a result, many villages in Kullu district organized cannabis cultivation to meet this new external demand. Cultivation consequently spread up all of the valleys within the vicinity. People from Malana, perhaps because of its soil and climate, produced high quality cannabis resin (THC : 11-12%), which, known as Malana Cream, soon became popular abroad, including, sometime later, within the coffee shops of the Netherlands. Lesser quality cannabis resin is produced in the rest of the Parvati Valley.
During my time as Commissioner of Customs in Amritsar (2001- 3), this area was part of my responsibility. Even then it was clear that eradication did not work. Indeed, seizures of hashish and arrests of traffickers did not check production. Trafficking increased.
Seven years ago, and after retirement, I joined a group who, influenced by the buzz around Alternative Development (AD), wanted to convince the people of Malana to give up cultivation of cannabis and switch to some alternative crops, business or employment. The group held a meeting in 2008 in Malana to discuss what alternatives the village could accept. The proponents of AD included bankers and bureaucrats, and agro-economists and scientists from Himachal Pradesh Agricultural University in nearby Palampur. In a survey around Malana the agro-scientists had found several valuable herbs, amongst them artemisia and cinchona. The bankers said that they would finance the picking of these herbs and their marketing with subsidies and interest free loans (see photo).
Photo: An introduction to the concept of AD and the invaluable (non-cannabis) herbs of Malana (September 2008)
In 2009 when the AD group met again in Malana (see photo), the villagers listened to us, gave us lunch, and then quite gently were amused by us for being idiotic! Could anything compare with the profits made from cannabis?
Photo: Another try at AD – and another rebuff (November 2009)
These days the expansion of cannabis fields to meet the rising demand has resulted in the cutting of protected forests. Moreover, the plant has suffocated all those rare herbs. Indeed, nearly every house in Malana produces cannabis resin, or hashish as it is better known here.
In October 2014, along with colleagues from TNI and others from South East Asia, Dave Bewley -Taylor and I visited this village. Hashish samples were being openly offered to prospective customers. Upon entering the village, a young man shouted to Dave, ‘Malana Cream?’ While walking around Malana and going about their daily business, other villagers were casually rolling cannabis in their palms to extract slowly the resin (see photo).
Photo: Not a minute to waste: Extracting resin on the go (October, 2014).
It was also a common sight to see mothers and their young children rolling out resin while sitting in the sun or on the balconies of the ancient buildings (see photo). Even foreigners and Indians from other states were helping in the process. At the same time our group was in the vicinity, other visitors were walking up to Malana, searching for the well-known dark brown resin.
Photo: Extracting resin: A family affair (October 2014)
On the way up from the River, I met a couple of engineering students from South India. They were going to buy a couple of kilograms of hashish to sell it at home. This is how the demand for the sought after ‘product’ increases.
The demand is now so high that inferior hashish from other districts of Himachal Pradesh, from the neighbouring hill state of Uttarakhand, and from as far away as Nepal is used to swell the stocks of Malana Cream. It sells for Rs, 4000/- (or £ 44) per tola (11 grams) in the village, and for twice as much in the closest towns in the plains.
On the way back from Malana, a man, who was pradhan there in 2008 and 2009, joined me. Smiling somewhat smugly about the boom in their cottage industry, he was happy that their clientele included many Indians now. The former pradhan said, however, that the law must be reformed because no one bothers about it. Offering one explanation for such a lax approach to enforcement, cannabis growers, he said, are a large ‘vote bank’ in HP!
So, if the former pradhan is right, what should happen to the law? Should the possession of cannabis for personal use be formerly, as opposed to what is effectively de facto, decriminalized in India, with hashish resin remaining illegal? Cannabis is after all smoked by millions of manual labourers in India to keep hunger at bay. But then, what should happen with resin and cultivation in general? In light of significant policy shifts in other parts of the world – specifically Uruguay and US states – should the Indian government consider a legally regulated market?
These difficult questions are compounded by the fact that little is known about either cannabis markets within different parts of the country or how policies within various India states where cannabis is cultivated are applied, or not. On the former point, no survey has been done to estimate the area under cannabis cultivation in Himachal Pradesh or elsewhere in India. For this reason, the United Nations’ World Drug Reports consistently show that India does not produce resin (See for example, page 39 of 2014 Report). Were a survey to be done and some sort of ‘ground truth’ established the results would be shocking and surely lead to the inevitable query: isn’t it time for the law to change?