At the corner of 23rd and Union Street in Seattle, Washington, lies one of this laid-back city’s biggest landmarks. In a city filled with landmarks, such as the Seattle Needle and Pike Place Market where, if you are interested, you can visit the very first Starbucks, this one does not attract that many tourists. If you know what you want, though, Uncle Ike’s is the place to go. You see, this shop is where you can legitimately buy marijuana and marijuana infused products for recreational use. But first, a recap.
My first experience with pot — call it ganja, weed, marijuana or whatever rocks your boat — was in the very first few days after entering college. My father, as an alumnus of the same college, had warned me about the lure of the plant, although in all fairness, all he really said was “Stay off chemicals and don’t get a girl pregnant,” which was fair advice to a 17-year old going to ‘college’, one I was told “is the only college worth going to in Delhi”. Within a few days, a senior (conveniently called ‘Trippy’) had taken me under his wing, which was all right with me. All that Trippy asked of me was that I go to his room every morning and roll him a joint or ten. If that was the price to pay to avoid getting sodomised (or just short of it) by crazy seniors, it was bloody well worth paying. The most brutal ragging, incidentally, was something called ‘lifting’ which involved being pinned down by three to five guys, having your pants pulled down and all sorts of things, including gel toothpaste, being applied to your genitals — and that was because Stephen’s was still gentrified. In other colleges, you had the notorious ‘candle dance’, but that is another story, for another day.
Quite obviously, during the entire process of rolling joints every morning for a few months (a skill I became quite adept at), I partook of them as well, and to be very honest, the next three years went by in a stoned blur. I did well enough, got laid, enacted Shakespeare and participated in the odd quiz and debate, but for all intents and purposes, I was tagged a ‘pothead’. I didn’t mind the tag, either. Getting stoned was dirt cheap — a pudiya of weed from Mall Road, now a Metro Yard, cost Rs 10, with paper and cigarettes another 10 (keep in mind that a bottle of the cheapest tharra you could buy set you back a couple of hundred bucks). The expensive part was where we got the munchies later on, which usually involved a trip to D-School (the Delhi School of Economics) where you could (and still can) get a fabulous mutton keema dosa for next to nothing. Once, after my friend ‘Doc’ brought some skunk from Amsterdam, we ran up a bill of Rs 500, which is some very serious eating. Doc plays an important role in the next phase of my stoner life; he was, and remains, a very close friend, someone I have known for close to 30 of my 38 years. Also, he’s the guy who told me to quit weed, because there was this magical, sticky black stuff called ‘hashish.’ I don’t think we used the term ‘OMG’ in the early 2000’s, but we should have, because my discovery of Malana Cream was a brain opener.
That said, even as a journalist, you couldn’t smoke day in and day out (although, by some perverse logic, drinking day in and day out was perfectly acceptable.) Still, smoking weed or hashish became the poison of choice when I hung around with friends. It was a pretty good way of meeting girls for a (then) physically unfit guy, and as every smoker knows, ‘the circle’ is a classless place — age, gender, wealth mattered not, just the words ‘puff, puff, pass’. Of course, as every smoker also knows, there is also ‘joint politics’ where people try to break into to the circle, but you get smarter as you get older, and the circle remains sacrosanct — and that has always been the case in India, where smoking ganja and charas is not seen as a social stigma, and even enjoys a level of social acceptability, not just among the entertainment industry but also the chattering classes and the middle classes. If there is any plant that is India’s gift to the world, it is the marijuana plant. It is part of our culture and our religious heritage, a heritage where getting high was not looked down upon. It was the Indian indentured labourers, brutally taken by the British to the West Indies, who took the seeds of the plant with them and shared them with their African brethren, who then adopted the plant as their own and shared it with the Western world.
Anyway, back to Seattle. Uncle Ike’s was an eyeopener. I had travelled to Amsterdam before and also to California, where pot is relatively easily available legally. But Uncle Ike’s was a totally different level of availability, because it was not just plant matter here. There were chocolates, candy, cookies and everything imaginable, because in Washington State, as well as Colorado and Alaska and soon Oregon, buying marijuana for recreational use in perfectly legal, as long as you are of legal age. All you need (as a foreigner) is a passport. However, because buying weed (while not a crime in Seattle) remains a crime in the federal statute books, you have to use cash to buy products at Uncle Ike’s, as the US Treasury Department controls the banks (and thus the credit card system). The state also regulates the usage of marijuana and derived products, levying taxes on them. The products are not cheap, but they are all lab-tested, and the amount of Tetrahydracannibinol (THC, the active ingredient in marijuana and hashish, the stuff that gets you high) is marked clearly on all products. This is an industry, make no mistake.
Several other American states are following the same path, as is Canada, and by the end of 2016 or early 2017, possession and consumption of marijuana in many states will be perfectly legal. Many European countries have also gone down the same road. By decriminalising marijuana consumption, they have been able to concentrate on stopping ‘Class A’ drug use and are going after designer drugs, considerably reducing the use of their police forces. Portugal is a great case in point — after legalising even the possession of small amounts of ‘Class A’ drugs such as heroin and cocaine for personal consumption, not only have drug convictions come down, so have the number of people going to de-addiction centres, and the cases of HIV transmitted by infected needles.
Much like Latin America, India is also a victim of Ronald Reagan’s ‘War on Drugs’. In 1985, after pressure from the White House, India passed the draconian Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS), which criminalised drug possession and usage to minuscule amounts. Tragically, the NDPS Act remains on the statute books, yet Indians continue to smoke ganja and hashish by the millions, every day. The best natural varieties of the plant still grow in the foothills of Himachal Pradesh, although the term ‘natural’ is used loosely here. One discovery I made when I visited Uncle Ike’s was the levels of progress that the US has made in altering the marijuana plant. In India, the best varieties of hashish, such as Malana Cream, have at best a concentration of around 20-25 per cent THC; in the US, varieties of weed are available with THC concentrations as high as 60 per cent. In fact, in states where marijuana sales are legal, global seed companies are cultivating GM marijuana crops. No wonder Seattle is a laid back city — go to the (wonderful) breweries or distilleries (Seattle is second only to London in gin appreciation) at night and you can smell ganja everywhere.
India needs to go the marijuana legalisation way, for a couple of reasons. The first is because it will make something that is acceptable in Indian society totally legal. How many of you can put up your hands and claim that you have never smoked, or even smoke a couple of joints every few days? This is the global trend, where a lot of the pseudo-science against marijuana has been gradually disproved, and Reagan’s war has been a lost cause. The other reason is that marijuana is India’s heritage, as I’ve said earlier.
It is our plant, and our scientists and cultivators ought to be given a chance to show their skills with it. Imagine if Malana Cream was sold legally across the world — there would be no hush-hush, no drug mafias in the foothills, no police harassment, and the biggest plus would be great tax revenues for the government. Our media yells and screams when global pharmaceutical companies try to patent aspects of the neem or turmeric plant, yet India has given up marijuana to the world. There will be a ‘Big Weed’ industry in the United States soon enough, and India will be the country that regrets it the most. Please, legalise it, sell it, tax it and smoke it — or, like I did at Uncle Ike’s, buy some marijuana chocolates instead.