Marijuana: Joint action

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The campaign for the legalisation of marijuana gathers momentum
Viki Vaurora discovered marijuana like many other youngsters—in a college dorm. In the one year he spent studying audio engineering in London, the now 23-year-old musician from Bangalore would find himself, he says, rolling up and smoking joints, along with his roommates, right from the time they woke up till the time they retired to their beds, apart from the countless times they stuck around outside class and lunch hours to light up yet another joint.

“Right from my childhood, everyone told me what an absolutely evil and dangerous drug gaanja was,” he says. “But, man, here I was smoking joint after joint perfectly able as I went about my day-to-day activities, more relaxed and calm than I ever was, and I realised what a load of shit all that was.”

Vaurora began trawling the internet for dope on cannabis and all available research. It confirmed what he suspected, that it was relatively harmless as an intoxicant. He also learnt of its medicinal properties and gradually became aware of the global movement to legalise it. By the time he returned to India, he claims he stopped consuming cannabis because he found very little time for it. But he couldn’t stop talking about it. “My friends called me a ‘charsi with a conspiracy theory’ when I tried to explain how marijuana had been banned in several countries without any scientific basis,” he says. “What struck me most on my return,” he adds, “was that there was absolutely no discussion here about marijuana or even a squeak on the need to relook at laws that prohibit it.”

Vaurora began communicating with marijuana legalisation advocates abroad. He began extracting the oil from the buds of cannabis plants and offered it to those who wanted to consume it for medicinal reasons. He even opened up to his parents and convinced them of the helpful properties of this much-maligned plant. He also set up a Facebook account, ‘The Great Legalisation Movement’, to canvass support for legalising marijuana, and began to work on a larger online platform to reach out far and wide.

On 10 May, he organised what could one day be regarded as a major milestone for a movement that has only just begun in this country. He arranged a pioneering conference on the need to legalise marijuana for medical purposes. Held in Bangalore, this ‘Medical Cannabis Conference’ had various advocates and doctors speaking on the subject; around 200 individuals attended the ticketed event. Over the next few days, three more conferences are to take place: in Pune, Mumbai and Delhi. “What we are trying to do with these conferences,” Vaurora says, “is kickstart the movement to demand the weed’s legalisation in India.”

Once the pet project of fringe figures, people who wore Bob Marley beanies and had ‘Rastafarian’ scribbled on their T-shirts, the movement to legalise marijuana— for medicinal and recreational purposes—has taken quite a few leaps of late, globally. Many countries in the past few years have legalised marijuana, from Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and the Czech Republic (which joined the Netherlands in Europe) to Uruguay and North Korea. Several states in the US have also legalised the sale and consumption of cannabis, with Colorado permitting the sale of marijuana even for recreational purposes. Advocates of legalisation had muscled their way onto the legislative agenda of those countries by lobbying and forging alliances with local organisations, elected officials and even religious leaders.

The argument is not just the individual’s right to get stoned, but framed as a move with many up-side gains—from commerce and tax generation via a new industry, especially in these harsh economic times, to the redirection of scarce law-enforcement resources to better purposes. Backed by growing research that shows not just the medicinal qualities of the plant, but also how it is less harmful than common intoxicants like alcohol and tobacco, venerable publications like The New York Times have lent the movement their weight. Last year, US President Barack Obama even told a news outlet that he had smoked pot as a kid and he viewed it as less dangerous than alcohol.

But here, in India, home to some of the most fabled varieties of cannabis and where its usage finds sanction even in religion, the movement had been conspicuous by its absence. Ever since cannabis was banned under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act of 1985, which clubbed it with hard drugs like smack, heroin, cocaine and crack, apart from the usual laments of its users in small circles, few have sought to question or lift the prohibition.

But now, a few feisty groups and individuals are ready to lead a movement to abolish the Indian laws that criminalise most forms of marijuana.

As news of his conference got around and Vaurora began to receive emails of support, he began to worry that the audience would mostly comprise ‘stoners’. But the people who turned up were an eclectic lot. There were young students who came to show their support for the movement, but there were also doctors, businessmen and retired senior citizens, some of whom had flown in from nearby cities and regions. Some of them were querulous about the topic, while many of them were drawn to the conference looking for an alternate means to help heal an ailing relative. “There were stoners too,” Vaurora says, “and they created the most noise, cheering every point.”

Among those present was Cecil Abreo, a 63-year-old retired professional who was diagnosed with lymphoma last month. “The doctors say I need to undergo chemotherapy, but they cannot confirm that I can be cancer free,” he says. “Currently, I’m just exploring various means of treatment.” Abreo travelled to the conference with his wife and daughter, curious if cannabis could offer an answer.

Several seats away from Abreo, a 30-year-old professional, who requests anonymity, cheered on as marijuana advocates spoke about the need to legalise the drug. “It’s about bloody time this happens,” he says. “It doesn’t kill you. In fact, it appears it can help people. So why don’t we talk about it?”

The site of a big development in the battle is the Bombay High Court. A Pune-based advocate, Aditya Barthakur, has filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) arguing that rules criminalising cannabis consumption and sale ought to be lifted. With the help of two other advocate friends, he is questioning the very basis of these laws. By his argument, cannabis was included in the purview of the NDPS Act without any scientific evidence to prove that its consumption is harmful to humans, and this contravenes the fundamental rights of Indian citizens.

The 34-year-old lawyer says he has been reading up the results of various studies showing the medicinal and harmless attributes of cannabis. He has also been following the news of various legislation measures across the world to decriminalise its use and sale. “If there is nothing harmful in the drug, and it is in fact beneficial, why should we arrest those who sell or consume it?” he asks. “Why shouldn’t we legalise it and conduct our own research that will allow for better treatment of various diseases?”

Just a PIL, he realises, may not suffice. To strengthen his case, Barthakur has employed another tactic. Last year, he began filing Right to Information (RTI) queries with several Central ministries and departments, asking them their reasons for the prevailing cannabis ban. The lack of a clear response or scientific explanation, he claims, would show how the law was framed without any logic or scientific endorsement.

He first filed an RTI with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. This was on 2 September 2014. The query was transferred to the Ministry’s Department of Health Research, then later to the Indian Council of Medical Research, finally reaching the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad, which, according to Barthakur, sent a reply that was clearly copy-pasted from the website of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of New Jersey, US. The next RTI, aimed at the Law Ministry’s legislative department, was transferred to the Department of Revenue, which sent a single-word reply: ‘Nil’. Another RTI application with the same query, this time to the Law Commission of India, was sent to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, which then took the same transfer route as before until it landed with the Home Ministry, which forwarded it to one of its divisions. An RTI was then sent to the Central Bureau of Narcotics, in which Barthakur again asked for the basis of the law prohibiting cannabis under the NDPS Act. By way of reply, all the Bureau did was send a reproduction of the NDPS Act’s provisions against cannabis.

Barthakur then attached all these queries and responses and filed a criminal writ petition at the Bombay High Court, making all the queried government departments and ministries respondents, along with the Union of India and State of Maharashtra. In the petition, he asked why cannabis should not be legalised when none of the government departments and agencies concerned seemed to know or provide satisfactory answers on why marijuana was banned in the first place. He has also attached various studies showing how it is harmless and possesses medicinal qualities, apart from references in mythological texts to establish its use in India since ancient times. “I’m not doing this for any gain or publicity,” Barthakur says. “My only concern is that if this plant is so beneficial, as a lot of research shows, we are doing a great disservice [to people] by banning it.”

The medicinal qualities of marijuana have been described by writers down the centuries, going back as early as 2737 BCE, when the Chinese emperor Shen Neng apparently used to prescribe marijuana tea for the treatment of malaria, rheumatism and gout, and even poor memory! The drug’s popularity as a medicine then spread throughout Asia, the Middle East and Africa. In India, various Hindu sects began using marijuana for pain relief and religious purposes.

But as the US began its ‘war on drugs’ in the 1960s, there was a campaign for a global law against all types of narcotics, both hard and soft, prodded no doubt by the perceived excesses of the hippie generation. India buckled under the pressure in 1985, when it enacted the NDPS Act. Smoking or selling pot was now equivalent to doing hard drugs like heroin or cocaine.

According to Tathagata Satpathy, a newspaper editor and Biju Janata Dal chief whip in the Lok Sabha, the ban on cannabis is an elitist one. He claims drinking alcohol, which could be as or more addictive and harmful than cannabis, is viewed as an upper-class habit, while rolling and smoking a joint attracts the pejorative tag of ‘charsi’. “Cannabis,” Satpathy says, “was banned because it was an intoxicant of the poor.”

The politician recently became the first Indian leader to publicly admit that he used to smoke weed and is against its prohibition. He made this frank admission during an ‘ask me anything’ session with people on the website Reddit. “While in college, I have smoked, and unlike [Bill] Clinton have inhaled cannabis many a time. In the villages of Odisha, many people openly smoke, and, as their representative, I am not entitled to be judgemental.” he had said.

According to the four-time MP from Odisha, although he thinks India should revisit its law against cannabis, he isn’t sure if this will happen anytime soon. Civil society and medical practitioners will have to raise a vociferous demand for the recreational and medical use of the plant. But if the matter ever comes up in Parliament, he says, he will support its decriminalisation.

In India, however, there are several legal loopholes around the consumption of cannabis. While the NDPS Act clearly lists cannabis as a ‘narcotic drug’, it does not ban the consumption of marijuana leaves, from which the popular Holi festive drink bhang is made. The prohibition only applies to the buds and resin of the plant and preparations of the latter (such as hashish or hash oil), which usually have high concentrations of cannabinoids, the plant’s active substance that has psychotropic effects.

In 2004, a local court in Haryana ruled that bhang does not fall under the definition of ‘cannabis’ and its possession does not constitute a punishable offence. Some states in the country even licence and tax sales of dry marijuana leaves.

While smoking its leaves may well be permitted, cultivating the plant itself is still illegal. So where does all of it come from? The answer is another legal fudge: growing marijuana may be punishable, but harvesting the leaves of plants that grow in the wild, at least in theory, is perfectly within the law.

According to Dr Sathyanarayana Bhat, principal of Mysore’s Government Ayurveda Medical College, cannabis is often used in ayurveda. “It exists in some grey area,” he says. “It may be illegal, but it is used by several practitioners for various ailments.” Pointing out how cannabis is mentioned in several ancient books, including the 16th century text Bhavaprakasha, he claims that in the field of ayurveda its extracts continue to be used for various things, from fostering better digestion to dealing with ailments connected with the ear, nose and throat, apart from treating speech disorders, diarrhoea, various aches, nausea and vomiting.

“The consumption of cannabis has been around in India for centuries,” Barthakur says. “What the law has done is drive the whole trade and consumption of it underground. It has made the practice of smoking weed unrespectable, when it isn’t even as harmful as tobacco.”

There are, of course, concerns about marijuana abuse. But these, from its health effects to its broader impact on society and law-and-order, are not at much variance from concerns about tobacco and alcohol. There is now overwhelming evidence that the addiction of and dependence on cannabis is only a minor worry in comparison with that of alcohol and tobacco. What most countries that have legalised the sale and consumption of cannabis have done is first legalise it for medicinal and research purposes. Some jurisdictions have then gone a step further to liberalise policies for its use as a recreational drug.

It is in the field of medicine that the plant is increasingly proving its utility. It has been found to be effective in managing the side effects of cancer and cancer therapies, the reduction of nausea and vomiting, anxiety and stress, and also in the stimulation of hunger and containment of pain. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also approved the use of a couple of cannabinoids, Dronabinol and Nabilone, for the treatment of chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting in patients who do not respond to standard therapy.

In Bangalore, some of the country’s top oncologists are lobbying the Centre to get the drug legalised for research and medicinal purposes. Says Dr Vishal Rao, an oncologist and a member of the Karnataka government’s high-powered committee on tobacco control: “Scientists have tried for several years to find medicinal qualities in the tobacco plant and have never succeeded. It causes cancer and yet we allow its cultivation and usage. Whereas cannabis has been found to contain many medicinal properties, yet we continue to ban it.”

Dr Rao, with the help of HealthCare Global Enterprises Ltd (HCG), is trying to reason with the Government to allow the plant’s medicinal usage.

He points out how Section 8 of the NDPS Act permits the cultivation of opium poppy or any cannabis plant for medical or scientific purposes and how the Medicinal and Toilet Preparations Act of 1955 allows a licencee to make and sell medicinal and toiletry preparations from substances like alcohol, Indian hemp or cannabis. “From my interactions with the Government on this issue and my understanding of the law,” he says, “till now, no company or individual has been allowed to carry out large-scale legal cultivation of cannabis because they couldn’t find a proper plan that actually assured the use of this plant for medical purposes only.”

Working with various departments at HCG, from the legal team to those involved in laboratory research, Dr Rao is now putting together a proposal for the Centre on how they plan to cultivate, manufacture and extract cannabis compounds and research it. “If we can regulate morphine and not allow its misuse as an intoxicant,” he says, “we can certainly do the same thing for cannabis.”

Sadly, according to Dr Rao, cannabis is a taboo subject, even within India’s medical fraternity. “There is so much research going on the plant elsewhere, and such remarkable discoveries being made. But here we aren’t even allowed to study it.” He points out how recent studies have proven that cannabis derivatives can prevent blood supply to cancer tumours and cause them to shrink. “Once the proposal with well-laid out plans is placed in front of the Government,” he says, “I really can’t see how it can say ‘no’. It is allowed for, right in the Act that prohibits cannabis consumption.”

Legislation advocates know that their attempt to generate a rational discussion on legalising pot, whether for medicinal or recreational purposes (or both), will not be easy. Resistance to the idea of legalising what has long been looked upon by many with horror operates at multiple levels. It was with much difficulty that Vaurora managed to find a venue in Bangalore, Alliance Française, willing to let its auditorium host a conference on the issue. Planned seminars in Mumbai, Pune and Delhi are currently having trouble with venues. “Most large venues in these cities are either run by schools or religious groups, and they don’t want to associate themselves with such a conference,” he says. He expects resistance to grow in the days, months and years ahead. “As we try to build this movement, we know it will just get tougher.”

Vaurora is keen to ally with and help those who are on the same path. A few days ago, for instance, after learning about Barthakur’s PIL, Vaurora flew to Mumbai to attend one of the court hearings on the case. He told Barthakur that he would try to garner public support for the PIL, and if the case was thrown out, would help him appeal to a higher court. “That’s the only way forward,” he says, “to cover each other’s backs.”

According to Barthakur, the chief reason he filed the PIL is that he was unable to wrap his head around why one would criminalise marijuana. “People have died from smoking tobacco and drinking too much alcohol,” says the lawyer, “I’ve never heard of or encountered a single case where someone died from smoking one joint or more.”

When I ask Barthakur if concerns about marijuana being a gateway to dangerous drugs is well-founded, he says, “No man, that’s not true.”

“Those who go onto harder drugs don’t start with marijuana,” he says, “They all start with alcohol.”

A Brief History of Cannabis

Use of the weed, by some accounts, goes back 12 millennia. Researchers have found burnt cannabis seeds in Kurgan burial mounds dating back to 3000 BCE in Siberia. Mummified marijuana has been found in some 2500 BCE tombs in Xinjiang. The ancient Chinese are thought to have used the plant for its psychoactive properties and fibre. There are accounts of its use in 2737 BCE by a Chinese emperor, Shen Nung, who would prescribe marijuana tea for malaria, rheumatism, gout and even poor memory! Middle-Eastern accounts abound of its use in the middle ages, and Shiva devotees in India have had an association with it that’s said to go back millennia.

The Medicinal High

There are at least 483 known compounds in marijuana, including at least 104 cannabinoids that affect the central nervous and immune systems. Cannabidiol, a cannabinoid, has been found to relieve pain and inflammation without causing a ‘high’ (which is to be pinned on delta-9-THC, another cannabinoid). Studies have found that cannabis-derived drugs could alleviate the side-effects of cancer treatment. The US FDA currently approves the sale of two cannabinoid drugs, Dronabinol and Nabilone, for the treatment of chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting. Cannabis use has also been found capable of blocking cell growth, preventing the growth of blood vessels that supply tumours, and relieving muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis. It could also relieve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. By influencing neuro-transmission in the brain, it potentially offers a treatment for schizophrenia and other psychiatric conditions as well. Other possible uses include treatment of stroke and epilepsy.

Less Harmful than Alcohol

According to a research study published in Scientific Reports this February, marijuana is safer than other recreational drugs—including alcohol— in common use. Researchers quantified the risk of death associated with the use of a variety of substances. They found that at the level of individual use, alcohol was the deadliest, followed by heroin and cocaine. Marijuana was found to pose its users a low risk of mortality. Alcohol was found 114 times deadlier.