Added to another chapter of the recreational drugs in India are the bhang balls, colloquially called bhola, available in dirt-cheap prices. While the trend of this recreational drug is rising, the health effects are still debatable.
In a shabby kiosk standing on a busy street in Delhi are on display candies, chewing gums, wafers, cigarettes, chewing tobacco and boxes full of the Indianised versions of cookies. On being asked about the availability of bhola the owner gripped by alertness vigilantly scans the neighbourhood and from a secret stash hands over a small bright packet that reads Shri Bhola Munakka, Ayurvedic Aushadhi (an Indian medicine).
On the backside are written the names of herbal spices, that constitute this green chewy ball including munakka (raisin), black pepper, peepli (Indian long pepper), sonth (ginger powder), black salt, rock salt, white cumin, ashwagandha (Indian winter cherry) and chandi vark (a fine sheet of edible silver). While all these ingredients are being used in ayurvedic (an Indian system of medicines) medicines since time immemorial, one of the constituents that stands apart is Shuddh Vijaya Bhang (an edible narcotic preparation of Cannabis leaves, commonly called hashish)
This recreational drug disguised as an ayurvedic remedy is easily available at the panwalas (small kiosks selling paan, an Indian preparation with betel leaves and areca nuts), who can be easily spotted in almost every Indian street.
Sharing the source plant Cannabis with charas and ganja (different forms of Hashish), even one ball is enough to generate a feeling of grandiosity, excitement, hostility, uncooperativeness, disorientation, hallucinatory behaviour and unusual thought content. Although all the three recreational drugs share the common psychoactive substance – tetra hydro cannabinol (THC), the hallucinogenic effects of bhang take longer to come, since it is ingested and not smoked.
According to a research, the symptoms of bhang-induced psychosis are similar to that of mania like disorder and include paranoid psychotic features and cognitive dysfunction. Another study reported that bhang-induced immunotoxicity can be attributed to a decrease in the fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) protein.
City of divinity or the city of bhang?
To spot bhang thekas (stores) in the narrow streets of Allahabad, a city in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is not difficult. The city is famous for the legalised sale of bhang since a very long time.
Speaking to Media India Group, the owner of a bhang theka shares, “It is legal here to sell and consume bhang. It is a part of the culture. During Holi (a Hindu festival) even families buy these for their Holi parties. However, if you have never tried any other recreational drug before, I would not suggest you to try bhang, the effect is really strong.”
The most popular brand selling the tiny bhang balls (bhola), Shri Bhola Munakka, is also based in Allahabad. These greenish-black clay balls are manufactured in the Saraswat pharmaceuticals. And thus begins the journey of these bhang balls from this holy city to different corners of the country.
Now come into the picture, the wholesale dealers in the market who further sell these packets to salesmen who reach out to the panwalas with this Cannabis mixture. In Delhi, the Khari Baoli market (the spice market in Old Delhi) is the hub of such dealers. While the MRP reads INR 1, many sellers take the liberty of selling these tiny narcotics at INR 2 or INR 2.5.
Some other brands that sell bhola are Power Bhola, Bhola Ka Gola, Tarang, Lehar, Sanan, Mastana, Mahakal, Mahashakti, Mahadev and Munnaka No.1.
While the fascination for this cheap high is prevalent in the lower strata of the society, the sellers reveal a shocking trend.
“I sell around 5-6 bholas per day. Though, most of my customers belong to the lower strata such as rickshaw pullers, even well to do men come at times for bhola. I have had several female customers too besides, of course, students. Customers from the age groups 30-60, all enjoy bhola,” shares Ramkishan (name changed), a panwala from Delhi.
“I buy big packets from a large shop for INR 55. It has about 40 small packets. Since I buy in bulk, I get them for a lower price. About one to two big packets get sold in a month. But I have never tried it myself, so I don’t know the effects,” another panwala from north Delhi added.
“The consumers of bhola come from every section of the society. It is consumed by students, labourers and housewives. People even take it for their families. Even IAS officers have come to my shop to buy it. If you have a goli (ball) an hour before your meal, it will do wonders to your digestion,” said Shashi Kanthm, a panwala from Delhi’s Katwaria Sarai, to an international media. Kanth sells around 30 packets a day. “My most regular customer is a showroom guard in Adhchini. He sometimes buys 20 packets in a go,” he added.
According to the sellers, youth, especially the students are being drawn to this narcotic.
“A friend introduced me to these. I had never tried any drug before, not even alcohol. The effect was really strong. My entire brain churned up. My concentration was fluctuating. My senses slowed down. It felt like I was a part of some movie. The food tasted extra delicious. It was a dream-like state. I got scared beyond a point,” shares a student from Delhi University who did not wish to be named.
“All my memories from the past flashed. It seemed as if I was time travelling. I kept forgetting instances from even five minutes before,” added another student.
“I was in a government school. I got to know about it in 12th standard. Almost everyone in my class had tried bhola. Once, three students completely lost it. They puked like anything and one even fainted. Each one of them had ingested around two bholas,” recalls Shiva, 24, from Delhi.
Psychotic or medicinal?
Besides the psychotic effects that bhang is known for, it is also used in many parts of the country for medicinal purposes. The recreational drug is known to be used as a common household remedy for painful affections of the eyes, conjunctivitis, swollen joints, spasmodic conditions, toothache, digestive troubles, headache and as well as migraines.
Even some of the ancient texts claim it to have pachani (digestion promoting), dipani (appetite-stimulating), pitala (exciting the flow of bile), ruchya (taste promoting) and moda-vardhani (promoting happiness) effects.
However, there have been instances wherein this form of bhang had severely affected the health in the past. For instance, three kids had to be hospitalised in Allahabad after consuming Madhur Munakka, in 2006. Several such cases have been reported from other states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh and Port Blair as well. Andaman had banned the brand ‘Lehar Munakka’ after the incidence.
What does the law states?
While the production, sale and consumption of certain parts of the Cannabis plant are prohibited as per the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act of 1985, the growth of bhang enjoys a special status. While the preparation of charas and ganja involve the flowering and fruiting tops beside the resins, bhang can be obtained from the leaves only.
Since the plant is wildly grown in many parts of the country including Assam, Bihar, Madras, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir, Patiala, East Punjab, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan, the law does not curtail the Cannabis grown naturally in the wild. However, the state government officials have been empowered to destroy the wild growth as far as possible as per the NDPS Act.
The recreational drug is dealt with under a special National Policy on Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances, according to which the ‘production and sale of Bhang is permitted by many State Governments.’
In fact, many states enjoy the taxation benefits from the sale of this psychotic. The most luxuriant growth of this plant is along the southern slopes of the Himalayas and eastern border of Assam up to an altitude of 10,000 feet above sea level. Adulteration of bhang, however, with the resins or flowering tops, is illegal. Though, bhang holds a special mythological significance and is often considered as an offering to Lord Shiva (a Hindu deity) as a symbolic surrender of all the life’s intoxications to the divine, the rising trend of these balls might be problematic. While the business of this recreational drug has escalated, the purity of the substance being consumed is yet to be assured of.
Shogi, Himachal Pradesh