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Poppy is also a flower

We’d a very large extended family where my cousins were very close in age.


Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  26 Feb 2023 8:21 AM GMT

Kamal Baruah


We’d a very large extended family where my cousins were very close in age. We’re growing up with a strict Koka (grandpa). He grew various fruits and vegetables in his backyard. While peeling sugarcane, we’re cautiously trespassing into his garden, but not that one particular corner for fear of destroying crops that grandpa was harvesting, like tobacco and ganja (hemp), when they’re young and tender. We appeared as weeds in his orchard, while he chased us out of his plantation.

We’re barred from that area of flowering and fruiting on the cannabis plant. We never knew much about it then, but he prepared it for smoking from those cured leaves after ageing and processing. Leaves are spread out on the courtyard and placed in direct sunlight to remove their moisture. Grandma did secondary curing to complete the process. Grandpa’s delight was to smoke sweetened and flavoured tobacco through a long water pipe. It consists of chambers for water and tobacco and a flexible tube stemming from it to allow the smoker to inhale. An enchanting effect of the sound of gentle bubbling was indistinctly heard. We called it hookah, which originated in Asia in the early 1600s.

It’s a common misconception that the health hazards of nicotine and toxins in tobacco smoke would be minimised by passing it through water before inhalation. The use of hookah was not only a custom but also a matter of prestige. Growing marijuana and tobacco plants has been part of culture and tradition for centuries. Incidentally, bhang, charas, and ganja are derived from the same cannabis but are mind-bendingly different substances. Buds, flowering, or fruiting tops are ganja, the resin from its flowers produces charas or hashish; and a paste from the leaves and stems is called bhang.

The traditional Ayurveda mentioned cannabis for herbal treatment and pain relievers. The British enacted a tax on bhang, ganja, and charas in 1798 to reduce cannabis consumption in India for the sake of the natives’ health and sanity and attempted to criminalise cannabis. The Narcotics, Drugs, and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1985 prohibits and criminalises the sale, possession, transportation, and cultivation of cannabis in certain forms. Interestingly, the act doesn’t mention anything about smoking paraphernalia, making it completely legal.

The NDPS Act prohibits the sale and production of cannabis resin and flowers, while allowing the use of seeds and leaves allowed. Thus, bhang is legal for use with leaves and has close ties to the worship of Shiva as well as the celebration of the festival Holi. It’s a treat to watch thousands of devotees consume bhang during Ambubachi at Kamakhya. The government may allow the cultivation of the cannabis plant for industrial purposes, such as obtaining fiber, seed, or for horticultural purposes.

The uses of cannabis are most prevalent in the North East. The Assam Ganja and Bhang Prohibition Act 1958 prohibits the cultivation, collection, possession, consumption, manufacture, or sale of ganja, and the smuggling thereof into the state of Assam, and restricts the cultivation, collection, possession, consumption, manufacture, or sale of bhang with a view to effecting its ultimate prohibition.

Drug abuse by young people is especially worrisome globally because habits formed early are likely to persist. Besides alcohol and tobacco consumption, abusers started vaping tobacco and marijuana by misusing prescription medicines, including opioids. Assam police have geared up for zero tolerance against narcotics, where huge quantities of heroin, ganja, opium, and poppy straw are seized. It trades across the porous Indo-Myanmar border.

As Myanmar was wracked by political instability and conflict, food security and poverty fueled the illegal cultivation of opium-poppy for many decades, and drug markets thrived. Various insurgent groups in the Northeast are active in illicit trafficking, and they encourage the proliferation of cannabis cultivation. Alas, poppy plants can be found growing abundantly in rural areas of Manipur that are smuggled out to Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

One such popular tradition revolves around offering Bhaang on the occasion of Shivaratri, which is a quintessential part of the offerings made to Lord Shiva as it refers to the night when Shiva performs the heavenly dance. However, Bhaang as cannabis is still a narcotic drug and the possession of this drug is considered to be an offence under the Narcotics Act, 1985. Nevertheless, because of the religious significance, it’s allowed during festivals like Mahashivratri and Holi. But I wonder, what makes Bhaang an inseparable part of these festivals?

Our Koka was perhaps right to be following an age-old trend of elderly hookah. Poppy is also a flower in Burma, but ganja and tobacco were full-grown in adjacent fields during our youthful days, where stout leaves were budding luxuriantly, We amused ourselves by playing hide and seek underneath the crowded seedlings of cannabis.

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