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In recent times, the Himachal Pradesh government has been moving steadily towards the possibility of legalizing cannabis (hemp) cultivation within the state's borders. This prospective development has sparked optimism among growers, who see it as a potential economic boon.
September 20, 2023: It is important to acknowledge the multifaceted implications of such a decision. These include concerns related to its impact on society, especially among adolescents and youth, the strengthening of the illegal cannabis production and supply network, the risk of pilferage, and the emergence of a motivational syndrome.
A committee composed of lawmakers has explored the feasibility of legal cannabis cultivation and has recently recommended the cultivation of non-narcotic cannabis for medicinal, industrial, and scientific purposes. Hemp, a distinct botanical variety of Cannabis sativa, is grown specifically for these purposes. It is already produced in certain parts of Himachal Pradesh, although it currently stands in violation of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act of 1985.
The awaited approval from the State Cabinet will pave the way for the formulation of a comprehensive policy on cannabis cultivation. This policy will carefully consider the provisions outlined in the NDPS Act of 1985 and the NDPS Rules of 1989. While concerns about the drug menace persist, State Revenue Minister Jagat Singh Negi, who chaired the committee, asserts the government’s commitment to combating drug abuse. He emphasizes that the cultivation of cannabis will be strictly limited to industrial, medicinal, and scientific purposes.
The economic potential of hemp cultivation
The policy on hemp cultivation for medicinal, industrial, and scientific purposes carries the promise of harnessing the medicinal properties of cannabis for patient treatment and generating revenue for the state from hemp-derived products. Additionally, it signifies the government’s dedication to supporting the long-standing demands of farmers to lift the ban on cultivation.
The NDPS Act of 1985 imposes restrictions on the extraction of resin and flowers from the cannabis plant. However, it also grants states the authority to create rules governing the cultivation, production, possession, transport, consumption, use, purchase, and sale of cannabis (excluding charas). States are empowered to permit the cultivation of hemp for obtaining fiber or seeds or for horticultural purposes. In 2017, Himachal Pradesh’s neighboring state, Uttarakhand, became the first in the country to legalize cannabis cultivation. Controlled cultivation is also being conducted in select districts of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh.
The prevalence of cannabis use in Himachal Pradesh
A study led by Ranjit Singh Ghuman, a distinguished economics professor at Guru Nanak Dev University in Punjab, titled ‘Dynamics of Drug Addiction and Abuse in North West India: Social, Economic, and Political Implications,’ reveals alarming statistics. Approximately 95% of drug addicts in Himachal Pradesh are using cannabis and its derivatives, such as marijuana, hashish, charas, and ganja/hemp.
Dr. Ghuman raises concerns about the potential consequences of legalizing cannabis cultivation. While it may assist some drug addicts in transitioning from more harmful drugs to less harmful ones, there is a significant risk of fostering lifelong addiction, particularly among adolescents and youth. The potential socio-economic contribution of drug-addicted youth to the state could be incalculable in the long run.
Addressing the root causes of drug abuse
Dr. Ghuman highlights that fundamental factors like unemployment and poverty contribute to the prevalence of drug addiction and abuse. Additionally, the nexus between illegal cannabis producers, suppliers, and politicians further exacerbates the issue. Legalizing cannabis cultivation may inadvertently strengthen this nexus. Instead, addressing the supply of drugs and tackling the socio-cultural, economic, and political factors driving drug demand should be prioritized.
The complex effects of legalization
Sandeep Bhola, an internationally certified addiction professional, underscores the potentially complex effects of legalizing cannabis. Drawing parallels with alcohol regulation, he expresses concerns about the challenge of controlling cannabis under the present system. Risks of pilferage at various stages of production and distribution are a distinct possibility. Moreover, cannabis use is associated with psychiatric symptoms, both temporary and potentially permanent. Amotivational syndrome, characterized by a lack of interest and motivation, can also result from cannabis use.
Differing opinions on legalization
Dharamvira Gandhi, a former Member of Parliament from Patiala in Punjab, welcomes the decision to legalize cannabis cultivation. He argues that the NDPS Act of 1985, intended to combat rampant drug use, has produced unintended consequences. The crackdown on traditional recreational substances led to the emergence of more potent and dangerous alternatives like heroin and cocaine. These newer, highly addictive drugs have fueled drug-related problems and criminal activities.
Recognizing hemp’s versatility
Cannabis has a long history of cultivation in Himachal Pradesh, and proponents of legalization emphasize its versatility. Hemp, they argue, has a multitude of uses, including phytoremediation, fiber-cloth production, medicinal applications, and the pulp and paper industry. However, its positive attributes have often been overshadowed by recreational use.
Kewal Singh Pathania, a committee member, highlights the financial benefits that hemp cultivation could bring to the hill state. It could provide an alternative source of income for locals and contribute to the medicinal and industrial sectors. Lal Singh, Director of NGO Himalayan Research Group, adds that while the specifics of hemp product production remain unclear if the plan results in economic and livelihood benefits without promoting narcotic use, it is a step in the right direction.
Balancing regulation and access
As the debate continues on cultivation and regulation, it is crucial to address concerns related to the abuse and diversion of cannabis for illicit purposes. Striking a balance between providing access for medical purposes and preventing misuse necessitates the development of a comprehensive regulatory framework.
The potential legalization of cannabis cultivation in Himachal Pradesh presents a complex issue with far-reaching implications. While proponents highlight its economic potential and versatility, critics emphasize the risks associated with increased drug abuse and criminal activities. Striking the right balance through thoughtful regulation will be paramount in realizing the benefits while mitigating the potential drawbacks of this decision.