Where Gray-Haired Aunties Push Weed

Bhang goes the movement to legalize pot in India.

After climbing a narrow set of stairs to the third floor of a dilapidated building in New Delhi’s posh Saket neighborhood, Prakhar Singh knocks on the door a couple of times and calls for “auntie.” After a few minutes, a frail-looking woman with gray hair and a wrinkled face opens the door. Without a word, Singh hands her a 100-rupee note (about $1.50). Soon, a dozen other young men have lined up — all waiting for auntie, who’s slipping small packets of ganja to each man. “Scoring weed in India is like getting vegetables from the market,” says Singh, a 24-year-old marketing exec. “Everyone is smoking up.”

Years ago, cannabis — or ganjha, as it’s widely known here — was available from government-licensed shops. Although it was banned in the 1980s, due in part to pressure from the U.S. when the country declared a global war on drugs, cannabis has a long religious and cultural significance in India. A form of it known as bhang — a mixture of leaves, seeds and milk — is widely consumed during the Hindu festival of Holi, and its association with the god Shiva makes it sacred for some.

Now, with the changing attitude in the West toward cannabis and the growing research around the world on medicinal uses, a spontaneous debate about the criminalization of cannabis has begun in India. Last year, Tathagata Satpathy, a member of Parliament from the South Indian state of Odisha, confessed on Reddit’s Ask Me Anything to having smoked weed in college. He also gave tips on how to “legally” obtain weed in his home state — comments that made him an instant hit with the country’s youth on social media.

Various events and seminars have been held in Bangalore, Mumbai, Odisha and other parts of the country by doctors and activists advocating the medicinal use of cannabis.

Separately, Aditya Barthakur, a 34-year-old Pune-based lawyer, filed what’s known as public interest litigation in the High Court of Bombay, challenging the criminalization of cannabis under current Indian law as unconstitutional. He also argued that the ban would attract people to more dangerous drugs and submitted evidence showing cannabis in treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s, arthritis and other diseases.

In their verdict last fall, judges dismissed Barthakur’s PIL, noting the high court doesn’t have the jurisdiction to direct Parliament to amend rules. But they did suggest that Barthakur could move a private members’ bill in Parliament — an option he’s trying to navigate, especially given that his petition to have India’s Supreme Court challenge the high court’s decision was refused. In spite of the setbacks, Barthakur thinks the law will eventually be changed, that it’s just a matter of time.

Some experts agree, albeit with caveats. Getting permission for medicinal cannabis use is a more achievable target at the moment, says Sourab Agarwal, founder of the Medicinal Cannabis Foundation of India. His Odisha-based nongovernmental organization has been lobbying the government to allow medicinal research of cannabis; Agarwal says that they “could have been helping patients right now. This kind of ban is regressive.” His efforts have received support from oncologists and medical institutes in the country, and various events and seminars have been held in Bangalore, Mumbai, Odisha and other parts of the country by doctors and activists advocating the medicinal use of cannabis.

For now, Agarwal’s NGO is continuing to push written proposals to different levels of government, arguing that a policy change could greatly benefit people who suffer from different types of cancer and neurological conditions. And, for customers such as Singh, any progressive change in the current law might mean better-quality weed on the market. Until that happens, Singh says, he intends to keep buying his fix from auntie — even though she sometimes sells “shit” in those packets.

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