Hash Tag

Marijuana Myths and the Mass Market

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With India’s General Election due in less than a year, this is a good time to push for the legalisation of this drug

Indians, one often hears, are inborn entrepreneurs: adaptive, restless for opportunity, ready for risk, and raring to strike a fortune the moment an occasion arises. So what explains all this whistling-with-upturned-eyes at the prospect of a market staring India in the face—one for branded marijuana?

Marketing it is illegal, no doubt, but lobbying for its legalisation is not. It shouldn’t take a panel of pandits with striped foreheads to convince the Centre that there has never been a more auspicious moment for such a move. Take a look around. In popular portrayals, it’s all the rage these days. In Amish Tripathi’s Shiva Trilogy, it features as something of a relaxant, perhaps even a conditioner of calm (its role as a rouser of rebellion and an inducer of naivete, however, is rather too hallucinatory a reading in my assessment). In Ayan Mukherjee’s blockbuster YJHD, the drug appears in a Holi song-and-dance sequence that pitches it as a reliever of inhibitions, perhaps even a stirrer of romance.

Admittedly, what these books and movies are referring to is bhang, a mash of cannabis leaves that India’s Narcotics Act of 1985 does not outlaw. They are not talking about hashish, the plant’s icky dark resin that has evoked images of menace in the West ever since its medieval association with Hashashins (from whom the word ‘assassins’ is derived). Imagery, though, is not reality. As it happens, there is no real difference between bhang and hashish. Both have the same psycho-active chemical, THC, and there is scant evidence that this stuff is either addictive or harmful (physio- logically speaking, that is). Which is why open-minded folk don’t see the point of retaining what’s now considered an orientalist old ban.

Is India ready to rethink its pot policy? There do exist State-run outlets that sell pouches of marijuana leaves, but these are so sparse that almost all of India’s demand is met illegally by alley peddlers of hashish slabs. This is a commodity business—with retail prices held high by nothing but the risk of run-ins with law enforcers. If the law liberates this market, however, it could conceivably turn into a high- differentiation business—with profits assured by how nicely a marketer sneaks a brand into consumer mindspace with a proposition that secures lifelong loyalty.

One doesn’t need one’s head dunked in icy water to concede that the odds of its legalisation are slim. But then again, with a General Election due soon, this is a good time to push for it. Arguably, a joint smoked openly by a rolling romantic is far less dangerous than a stash of opium hidden in a chaddi by some raving rabble- rouser. And if anybody should be keen on the mass adoption of a drug that causes short-to-mid-term memory loss, it’s the Congress.