BJD chief whip in Lok Sabha Tathagata Satpathy recently admitted in a social media chat that he smoked pot (ganja/marijuana) in his younger days. To the pleasantly surprised Net audience, the four-time MP from Dhenkanal in Odisha even showed the way to legally score the stuff in his own state. The comments have since gone viral, earning Satpathy many fans for his candid admission and frank opinion on what he says is an unfairly stigmatized subject. In this interview he explains his opposition to the “elitist” ban on cannabis consumption in India and how given an opportunity he would stand up for its repeal in Parliament. – Deeptiman Tiwary
• I did it when I was young. I haven’t smoked pot for some time now. But I neither regret it nor have any remorse about it. I also don’t support the ban on cannabis consumption.
• Why do you think cannabis consumption was criminalized? Was it wrong to do so and attach such stigma to its use?
• Intoxication, in various forms, has been part of societies across the world. Shiva had some kind of ras and Christ’s blood was wine. Since biblical times and even prior to that, including the Romans and South Americans, people have been using intoxicants. Whether it’s part of Indian culture, I don’t know. But it’s definitely a way of life in India. In Odisha (where cannabis consumption is not illegal), people smoking chillum is a common sight. It is not something you make note of just as you don’t notice someone drinking water or having tea. The only difference that I have experienced in life is whether you let an intoxicant overpower your life or you take it as a learning process, do something and then get out of it.
• It has often been argued that it’s not the substance that makes you an addict….
• That’s correct. It’s not the substance but your character. People are addicted to sweets, salty food. It harms them as much.
• Do you think in the late ’80s when it was banned, we overreacted to a scare created by the US?
• Yes, I agree.
• Do you think it’s hypocritical of the Indian state to allow consumption of alcohol but not cannabis? It has been argued that alcohol is more harmful than cannabis.
• We are the US of the ’50s and the ’60s. We are wannabes. The thinking is that if you hold a wine glass people will consider you belong to the upper class. You roll a joint and people will call you charsi. It is an elitist bias. It was during Rajiv Gandhi‘s time that the Indian state was most elitist. A pilot married to a foreigner and forced into something he was not interested in. Indira Gandhi was not elitist in that manner. Cannabis suffered a ban because it was an intoxicant of the poor.
• Should India revisit the ban?
• While it should, I don’t think it can. Unless there is some Act about medical us age of marijuana and then the civil society creates some kind of pressure to insert the word “recreational”. And then we can also demand a change in the NDPS Act.
• If some day a debate comes up on this issue in Parliament, would you stand up for decriminalization of cannabis?
• Of course I will. I will seek the permission of my party president. I will try to convince him of what I think and why I think so. Whether he agrees or not I can’t predict. But if he is convinced, perhaps he will authorize me to officially support decriminalization of cannabis. After all, it is legal in our state.
Since 1985, when the ill-conceived NDPS Act was enacted, this is the first time an Indian lawmaker has shown the courage of conviction to speak out against th law and ask for legalizing use of cannabis—the plant from which marijuana (ganja), hashish (charas) and bhang are derived. The NDPS Act had outlawed a way of life in India by bracketing ganja and charas with killer drugs like smack and heroin and prescribing a minimum 10-year jail term for the sale or possession of these drugs. Government shops that sold ganja and charas shut down and the poor man’s intoxicant was made illegal. Meantime, informal trade moved from these soft drugs to killer smack because while the punishment was the same, the profit margin for smack was 10 times higher than for ganja. And for the first time, we witnessed a drugs problem in India with the emergence of the desperate “smackiya”.
Several MPs knew what was happening, argued against the Act in private, but none spoke out against it. Some of it was because of American pressure (the US was losing patience with their pot-smoking flower children), but mostly because soft drugs like marijuana and hashish didn’t enjoy the respectability of alcohol with the upper classes. Since then, penalties for soft drugs have been made lesser than for hard drugs. But should there be a penalty at all on them? American research shows that marijuana is no more harmful to health than alcohol—in fact, some research suggests alcohol is worse. Several US states have legalized the medicinal use of marijuana and a growing number are legalizing it for recreational purposes too. And to think that it was India where marijuana and hashish were used as recreational drugs for as long as anyone can remember. Our scriptures talk of Lord Shiva’s fondness for it.
Last year, the NDPS Act was amended to allow the medicinal use of narcotic drugs. However, we should go further and allow the use of soft drugs like marijuana and hashish for recreational use. That would usher in a rational approach towards intoxicants, and set right a historical wrong. – The Times of India, 29 March 2015