Recently, Union Minister Maneka Gandhi recommended that medical marijuana be made legal in India. Though marijuana, or cannabis, is commonly known to be a recreational drug, it has also been used for therapeutic purposes for thousands of years. Medical marijuana is cannabis/pot that is prescribed by doctors to patients.
While medical marijuana is legal in several countries, India has been grappling with the issue for many years now. Countries where it is legalised are Canada, Uruguay, some states in the U.S., Netherlands, and Romania among others.
Historically, marijuana’s medicinal uses can be traced back as early as 2000 B.C. when the emperor of China, Shen Neng, touted cannabis tea as a treatment for gout, rheumatism, malaria, and even poor memory. Its popularity spread throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. In India, certain Hindu sects used it for pain and stress relief.
It is believed that ancient physicians prescribed marijuana for everything from earaches to childbirth.
In early 2015 the first designated Medical Cannabis Conference was organised in Bengaluru where Canadian medical marijuana activist Rick Simpson, also christened with the title messiah of medical marijuana, referred to ganja actually being legal in India as recently as 1986. He also spoke about how on Holi the consumption of Bhang, a beverage containing cannabis leaves and flowers is rampant in many parts of North India.
While the medical fraternity is divided about its use, the obvious area of contention remains its misuse. Dr. Jaba Chauhan, a private practitioner from Chennai says, “While I think it is beneficial for patients who suffer from chronic pain, with the kind of medical system we have, people can easily manipulate it and use it for substance abuse. So unless there is a very strict system of availability only for certain institute’s prescriptions, it just might be more of a substance abuse problem.”
Attempts to criminalise marijuana started as early as 1838 during the British raj. The 1961 International treaty Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs clubbed marijuana with hard drugs. Bhang however was exempted from this list. In 1985, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act was enacted and the status given to marijuana continued. NDPS banned the production and sale of cannabis resin and flowers, but permitted the use of the leaves and seeds, allowing the states to regulate the latter.
In December 2015, Lok Sabha MP from Odisha Tathagata Satpathy had suggested that marijuana be legalised in the county as it could help fight alcohol addiction.
“In the villages of my constituency, old people, venerable people used to smoke natural marijuana,” Tathagata says.
Shashank Mehta (name changed), a recreational marijuana user says, “The issue is with clubbing marijuana with all the other hard drugs. The NDPS Act contains a list of hard drugs like smack, heroin, cocaine and crack which are addictive and cause harm. There cannot be a blanket rule which covers all the drugs.”
While tobacco, which is known to cause cancer, is available freely, marijuana, which is said to alleviate pain, is still not legal in India. While this is not the first time a politician in a position of authority has raised this issue, it has in the past failed to gain enough momentum. With the Women and Child Development Minister’s recommendation medical marijuana activists are hopeful of a positive outcome.