India has a long history of opium and cannabis use, especially in medicinal, spiritual, religious and social contexts. The earliest mention of cannabis has been found in The Vedas, or sacred Hindu texts, written thousands of years ago. The Vedas call cannabis a source of happiness, joy-giver, liberator that was compassionately given to humans to help us attain delight and lose fear.
During the Middle Ages, soldiers often took cannabis before entering battle while other professional used to consume it for different reasons such to celebrate different occasions or get relief from pain, anxieties etc. Cannabis was widely accepted in most part of the country before and after its independence from the colonial rule. Serving opium has been an age-old tradition in many parts of the country that marks respect for guests.
No matter for rich or poor, men or women of certain sects after certain age, the practice of consuming opium, liquor, bhang etc during festivals or other social and cultural gatherings was not seen as socially deviant behavior. However, this social propriety turned into legal impropriety with the enactment of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act in 1985 by the Government of India, in order to comply with international agreements.
The NDPS Act prohibits cultivation, production, manufacture, possession, sale, purchase, store, transport, import, export, use and consumption of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, except for medical and scientific reasons, under license or permit by the government agencies. The Act extends to the whole of India and also applies to all Indian citizens outside the country and to all persons on ships and aircraft registered in India.
Under the NDPS Act, penalties to offenders depend on the quantity of the drug found, with the scale of punishment varying from a maximum of 6 months for ‘small quantity’ to 20 years of imprisonment for a first offence involving ‘commercial quantity’ and also a monetary fine ranging from hundred to two hundred thousand in Indian rupees. The Act has also several provisions of severe punishment for serious offenders.
However, the NDPS Act was criticized from different quarters due to the law providing the same punishment for all drugs, which meant that dealers shifted their focus to harder drugs, where profits are far higher. The critics also suggest that some of the softer drugs should be legalized, as this might reduce the level of heroin addiction.