One could easily argue that cannabis is one of the most persecuted plants in human history. Despite it’s numerous medical and recreational benefits, cannabis has been made illegal in numerous countries, and India is no exception. Although cannabis is widely used in India, it is illegal. In 1985 the Indian government passed the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, which banned the use of cannabis. However, there was one loophole: bhang. So if cannabis is illegal, then what is bhang?
Bhang is an edible preparation of cannabis made out of the seeds, leaves, and flower heads of the plant. Bhang is most commonly sold in drink form by government-approved vendors in India.
Bhang is a cannabis drink that is considered a fundamental part of Indian culture and Hindu religion. Buying and consuming it (whether you are a tourist or not) is not illegal. According to Indian law, cannabis is defined as “the flowering or fruiting tops of the cannabis plant (excluding the seeds and leaves when not accompanied by the tops) from which the resin has not been extracted, by whatever name they may be designated.”
Basically, that’s a bunch of legal jargon that allows for the consumption of bhang because it’s not legally considered “cannabis (hemp)”. Instead, it is defined as “cannabis (plant)”. It’s a strange distinction, but many cannabis laws seem to be that way. It's really not that far off from how cannabis laws are handled in the U.S.
What is Bhang, and How Do You Make It?
There are two ways you might find bhang in India. The first is pre-made in drink form and the second is an herbal pastille. Both forms of bhang are approved by the Indian government and are sold by vendors that must obtain a special permit. Unlike other drugs and alcohol, there is zero stigma attached to the consumption of bhang – it would be like drinking coffee in the United States.
While some parts of India have banned items like eggs and alcohol for religious purposes, bhang is freely consumed everywhere. If you have ever tried mango lassi in an Indian restaurant, bhang is a little bit like that, except it contains cannabis! You can drink bhang in India or if you are an aspiring cannabis chef, you can also make it at home. To make bhang, all you need is up to ½ oz. of fresh cannabis leaves and flowers. You combine that with water, warm milk, something sweet like honey or agave, coconut milk, and ground almonds. And of course, what is bhang without Indian spices like garam masala and ginger? Typically, the mixture is strained and chilled before serving.
Before the ingredients are blended together in drink form, the cannabis is heated over the stove to activate the THC. Because bhang is used as a medicinal drink in Ayurvedic medicine, there are many variations on the recipes. In short, Ayurvedic medicine is a system of balancing the four elements within the body – fire, earth, air, and water. Depending on your constitution and current state, you might have other herbs blended into your bhang. Some additional ingredients you can add to the drink are rosewater, fennel, cardamom, anise, yogurt, whey, and grenadine.
Bhang Pastilles, Green Cookies, & Ayurvedic Powder
Considering that Indian residents are the ones buying bhang, obviously, they might prefer to make the beverage at home and blend it with their own Ayurvedic herbs. Bhang vendors also sell bhang in pastille form. While Western medicine often focuses on taking medication in hard pill form, Ayurvedic medicine is known for pastilles, which are soft and chewy. You can make pastilles by blending honey and powdered herbs into little balls. These can be stored in the fridge for 2-3 weeks.
One benefit to buying the pastilles over the pre-made bhang drinks is that you get to control what goes into your drink. There is a bit of risk involved with drinking bhang in India. After all, you are trusting another person to prepare an intoxicating beverage for you in a foreign country. You never know what other elements are mixed into the drink.
One other thing worth mentioning is the green cookies. According to a few different sources, if you enter a bhang shop in India you might see some little green cookies for sale. Technically, these are illegal to buy and sell, but the police kind of look the other way when bhang shops are selling them. You can take a risk and buy them, but you definitely want to consume them discretely and avoid traveling around the country with them. If you were to get searched, it would definitely be an issue.
A few other random ways you might see bhang for sale is as bhang goli (freshly ground cannabis mixed with water) and as an Ayurvedic powder. Both of these items can be purchased and consumed legally.
Also, this goes without saying, but be sure to purchase bhang from an actual store and not from a street vendor or random person. You want to make sure that you are actually buying bhang from an establishment that has a permit to sell it.
Can You Smoke Bhang?
If you don’t want to drink your cannabis, which is understandable considering how eating cannabis creates a very different effect than smoking it, you might be tempted to purchase the bhang pastilles and dry them out for smoking.
Even though it is kind of a loophole legally, smoking bhang in India is not advised. Basically, you are in a foreign country that does not have fully-free cannabis laws, and it isn’t a good idea to push the limits. Most Indian people find smoking cannabis suspicious, especially if you are obviously a tourist. Although they think nothing of consuming bhang, smoking recreationally is not socially acceptable. In fact, even using bhang for non-spiritual purposes is considered a sin. You might see tons of holy men smoking cannabis on the streets, but they are considered to be freeing people from their sins and have a respected place in society. If you are just visiting, you will not be seen in the same regard.
A Quick History of Bhang in India
If you live in a state like California or Colorado, it might seem weird that in India bhang is legal to drink, but cannabis is illegal. The truth is that many lawmakers in India have considered making cannabis fully illegal since the early 1800s, but because of how intertwined bhang is with spiritualism in India, it is basically impossible.
To really understand why bhang could never be made illegal in India, you have to understand the very fabric of Indian culture, especially in Northern India. Religion and spirituality is a fundamental part of everyday life in India, and most people practice Hinduism. Cannabis is mentioned as a sacred plant in Hindu texts that date as far back as 1,000 B.C. and bhang is an integral part of Hindu traditions and customs.
In Hinduism, cannabis is considered a sacred plant that was loved by Lord Shiva, who is widely celebrated and honored in India during the colorful Holi festival. Lord Shiva, who was also dubbed the “Lord of Bhang”, used cannabis to increase his powers of good in the world and suppress his negative urges.
Devotees of Lord Shiva follow in his footsteps and use cannabis, in the form of bhang, to prepare their minds for meditation, purify and detox their bodies, and improve sexual function. The spiritual aspect of bhang is also intertwined into the Indian system of medicine, Ayurveda. In Ayurveda, bhang is considered a treatment for sunstroke, fever, dysentery, lisping, bad digestion, and poor appetite.
If you are visiting India, you can rest assured that your cannabis needs will be met, you just have to take a few precautions and make sure you are respectful of the legal climate and religious customs in India.