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Marijuana for medical use: a possibility in India?

37089795 - india flag on cannabis background. drug policy. legalization of marijuana: Copyright: <a href=''>promesaartstudio / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
Concept art representing marijuana in India. 

Medical marijuana is now a real possibility in India.

The country’s first ever research and development (R&D) licence to cultivate cannabis and study its medicinal properties has been granted to the Council of Science and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Bombay Hemp Company (BOHECO).

The two organisations will collaborate on a project examining the potential medical benefits of marijuana in relation to cancer and epilepsy.

“Extracts, pills and patches”

The licence allows for the growth of twenty different accessions of cannabis, collected from across the country. A central element of the study, according to BOHECO co-founder Avnish Pandya, is separating the recreational and medicinal aspects of cannabis.

The product looks at the creation of “extracts, pills, and patches” using the cannabidiol (CBD) compound, as opposed to simply dispensing raw cannabis. Dr. Ram Vishwakarma, director of CSIR’s India Institute of Integrative Medicine (IIIM), elaborates

“all drugs obtained from [the cannabis] plant have an important medical ingredient called [CBD], but the plant itself has been banned because of another component, called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

The research that has been coming out of the USA and Europe in the last decade confirms that most of the pharmaceutical activity comes from CBD, while the habit-forming and psychoactive activity comes from THC.”

Cannabis in India

Cannabis has historically been used in India for therapeutic and spiritual purposes, dating as far back as 2,000 B.C. A popular component of herbal medicines, cannabis was used to treat ailments such as gastrointestinal disorders, dysentery, insomnia, anaemia, and migraines.

A particularly popular form of cannabis in India over the centuries has been bhang, an edible preparation of the drug. Bhang is of particular significance in Hinduism, India’s dominant religion. It continues to be widely used in holy festivals.

Copyright: <a href=''>rupaghosh / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
A man sells bhang in Patna, Bihar.

At present, cannabis in India is illegal at the national level, as per the 1985 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Law. There is some variation from state to state, however. In Uttarkhand, for example, the growth of cannabis is permitted, but for industrial purposes only. Growers must be licensed and cannot sell to private buyers.

In Gujarat, bhang can legally be cultivated and consumed as of February this year. It was determined bhang does not constitute an “intoxicating drug.” This exempts it the state’s drug prohibition laws. The same is true, albeit informally, in other states such as Odisha.

“A cheap, regulated and medically supervised supply”

The legalisation of cannabis for medical purposes is not a new discussion in modern India. It was recently advocated by Maneka Gandhi, the Union Minister for Women and Child Development. Gandhi suggested India should follow the example of the United States. There, twenty-three states have legalised the drug for medical reasons. It is worth noting, however, cannabis in the U.S. remains illegal at the federal level, which provides its fair share of complications.

42095986 - indoor marijuana grow room with plants in soil under lights Copyright: <a href=''>openrangestock / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
Marijuana plants being grown indoors.

Gandhi argues medical cannabis could provide relief in particular for cancer patients. This is a sentiment echoed by Vishwakarma, who suggests cannabis as a potential alternative to morphine. The latter suggestion will, though, be met with unease by cancer patients’ groups. They have fought a long battle to get adequate access to pain control for those living with the disease.

Lok Sabha MP, Dr. Dharamavir Gandhi (no relation), sought to table a bill last year amending the NDPS law. The amendment would allow for a “cheap, regulated and medically supervised supply of traditional and natural intoxicants”, such as cannabis and opium. Gandhi blames the NDPS for enabling “more potent, addictive and dangerous alternative drugs [to flood] the markets”, such as cocaine and heroin, by taking away “the common man’s recreational substances.”

Does it work?

Legalisation of marijuana for recreational use does not seem to be on the table – at least for now. However, medicinal marijuana seems a distinct possibility. The question therein lies: does medical marijuana work?

Opinion is generally mixed on the subject. Medical cannabis can be considered effective at alleviating chronic and moderate pain, sleep disorders, depression and anxiety, and spasticity. This can make it an effective palliative treatment for a range of conditions. These include cancer, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.

However, opinion is divided over the degree to which the potential benefits of medical cannabis are offset by the short-term side effects. This is exacerbated by the limited clinical evidence as to the long-term effects of medical cannabis – an issue caused by the legal status, or lack thereof, of cannabis in most countries.

The efforts of BOHECO and CSIR to develop a way for marijuana to be used as medical respite, without the potential pitfalls of recreational use, marks an encouraging step forward in the study of medical cannabis.

That the Indian government has issued them with a licence to do so is similarly refreshing, indicating that there is an openness towards new and innovative treatments in India’s healthcare sector.

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