From Reverence to Reefer Madness: The Journey of Weed

Pop Culture

From Reverence to Reefer Madness: The Journey of Weed

Illustration: Shivali Devalkar

It was 1978. Dylan, a British teenager with long hair and armbands, had first just heard of India, more importantly he’d heard that it was home to a form of cannabis that wasn’t available in the UK. It was hand rubbed from the resin of the weed that grew in the northern plains of our country – charas. Dylan scrounged whatever money he had left and booked a ticket to India, where he’d heard that marijuana was legally sold in government shops.

It’s worth mentioning here that 1978 was the year the The Who released their eighth studio album, Who Are You, and The Grateful Dead were on a tour in Egypt – in other words a great time to be high. But marijuana was illegal in the UK – it had been since the 1920s – and the fact that it grew along the streets of rural India had a certain pull to it.

Dylan reached India later that year, and made his way to Arambol in Goa. Back then Arambol was a forest by the beach and not the “Arrrambool bhai” as we know it today. Dylan remembers there being three huts on a cliff by the sea, where he hung with sadhus smoking charas, and learning about chakras, sitars and other typically “Indian” things.

But as he chanted shlokas, the government of the time was already in the process of enforcing a treaty opposing the use of weed for recreational and medicinal use. The treaty was signed in 1961, during a United Nations “single convention on narcotic drugs”, and was the first of its kind to have clubbed cannabis with cocaine, heroin and other Grade A narcotics.

The Rajiv Gandhi government, succumbed to tremendous pressure in 1985 and passed the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, which in effect says smoking marijuana is the same thing as shooting heroin.

According to one report, a group of cannabis and opium-producing countries, led by India, opposed the UN’s intolerance to the sociocultural use of organic drugs at this meet. The protest was, however, drowned out by the US and other Western countries.

It took over 20 years, but in 1985, the Rajiv Gandhi government, succumbed to tremendous pressure from the United States, and passed a law that conformed with the treaty – the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, or NDPS, which in effect says that smoking marijuana is the same thing as shooting heroin. The United States was grappling with drug problems and the excesses of the hippies, and resorted to the Reefer Madness campaign to bombard the media with warped facts about the “Satan-inducing” plant, with studies blaming it for everything from rape to jazz music. This eventually led to the UN demanding that every country under its purview enforce the blanket ban or risk being thrown out. From here on, the narrative of “weed as the villain” began to take shape.

It was around this period that a judge in the United States, Francis L Young, observed that “a smoker would theoretically have to consume nearly 1,500 pounds of marijuana within about fifteen minutes to induce a lethal response”, but that made no difference. America had convinced the world that marijuana was the enemy and Archie and the gang were handed a strict no-drug policy, despite Jughead’s suspiciously large appetite.

What happened as a result of these global events, is that back home, a culture that had been revering weed from as early as the Vedic period in 1500 BC — one that extolled bhaang as Indracanna, the “food of the Gods” — began to associate it with stealing monkeys from zoos, and that guy who always seems to think he can fly.

The wave of branding the weed smoker as the “pothead” had begun. We heard about the guy who became a paranoid vegetable who thinks he’s going to die. We heard about the guy who never takes a shower. The guy who has zero ambition in life.

Popular culture did its part in portraying weed users as non-functioning members of society. Take Jay and Silent Bob, Cheech and Chong and “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski – what they all have in common is an aversion to grooming. It made us think that pot smokers are in it only for the giggles, cheap puns, and random rambling about the universe and “consciousness”. This conversely gave us the impression that when we get stoned, we needed to make a show about being stupid, stretch our “bros” out, and say “Bholenath” with a random European accent before you smoke a “boom”.

What the culture skipped almost entirely was the high-functioning stoner, the productive guy, the one who smokes a joint, goes to work, and does really well for himself.

This brings us back to Dylan. In 2016, the now 70-year-old Dylan, with the same length of hair and number of armbands, made his way back to Goa. He decided to go to the same spot in Arambol he had discovered himself in all those years ago. But this time he did not meet chillum-smoking sadhus, or discover beauty in its rawest form, but came across three men with pirate eyepatches who were attempting to balance a banana on a horn of an incredibly confused bull.

What a bunch of idiot “potheads”, he thought, as he turned away to light his chillum.