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High time India legalised cannabis

Cannabis is a part of Indian culture with blessings dating back to the Vedas, which called it one of the five sacred plants and a giver of joy

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Ness Wadia should consider himself lucky that he got caught with his hash stash in Japan rather than in India. Unless he gets himself into trouble in Japan again, his suspended sentence of two years will not result in any prison time.

India, though, does not do suspended sentences, and if you get convicted under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985, you’re looking at as many as 20 years behind bars for the manufacturing, possession, selling, or purchase of cannabis.

That, to me, is insane. Cannabis is a part of Indian culture, with blessings dating back to the Vedas, which called it one of the five sacred plants and a giver of joy. We even escaped typical British attempts to criminalise a good thing, and continued smoking up peacefully until 1985, when after decades of pressure we decided to trot behind America’s footsteps and come down hard on all recreational drugs with the NDPS Act.

But all drugs are not made the same. Cannabis, in particular, can do more good than harm. Its medicinal properties are now gaining recognition the world over, yet here we are busy destroying lives with our draconian drug laws. For example, I know of a 23-year-old from Himachal Pradesh who was caught with about 25gm of hash. He’s out on bail now, but his marriage broke and he can’t get a job despite his engineering degree.

All this is so unnecessary. While I am not promoting cannabis for recreational use, I strongly believe it should be legalised for at least medicinal and industrial purposes. I speak from personal experience.

I was 21 years old when I was diagnosed with lymph-node tuberculosis. The doctor said it was in the third stage. The allopathy medicines weren’t working and, if anything, were making symptoms worse. I had not slept for days when I landed up at a friend’s house, crying my heart out.

She handed me a doobie and said, “Agar marna hi hai, to phoonk ke mar (If you are going to die anyway, just smoke up and die)”. I did just that, and slept like a baby for hours. The pain was gone. This is when I started researching the medical benefits of cannabis. People are using it for pain relief for conditions ranging from multiple sclerosis to cancer, and it is safer than the usual prescribed opiates.

Medical marijuana is legal in more than 30 American states and there’s a huge movement for greater cannabis reform. As for me, cannabis saved my life. Within four months, my symptoms were
alleviated. Since then, I have seen so many patients  benefit from using cannabis medicinally.

Two years ago, I started a foundation, Hempvati, that is working towards getting easier access to medicinal cannabis and industrial hemp in India. We counsel medicinal cannabis patients, consult business houses which are dealing with industrial hemp and looking to venture in the Indian and the Asian market, educate farmers about cultivating hemp, conduct research on medical cannabis, and meet legislators and policymakers to discuss and exchange our data.

There is a lot to be gained from legalising medical cannabis, except of course for Big Pharma which will take a hit once more people adopt this ancient medicine.

Legalisation will also end the black market around the production and distribution of cannabis in India. Last year, the Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh governments allowed the cultivation of hemp for medicinal and industrial purposes, but it will take a while for it to be implemented. The other states still have a ban on hemp production. I am allowed to import hemp, but one can’t cultivate it in India. Unless it’s made legal, our farmers will keep losing out.

If Indian strains of weed can be found in Amsterdam, it means that quantities of it are being imported. Ninety-nine per cent of our marijuana is, in fact, being exported. Meanwhile, in our country farmers are getting paid `500 per tola, while middlemen profit from selling it at higher rates to smokers.

A 2019 study conducted by the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences reported that about 7.2 million Indians had consumed cannabis within the past year. So, it is being consumed despite the law.

Fortunately, I have received support from the government, including a letter of appreciation from Maneka Gandhi in which she called cannabis a “miracle drug.”

The ministry of ayurveda, yoga and naturopathy, unani, siddha and homeopathy (AYUSH), which was set up to research alternative medicine, is also taking a serious look at the medicinal properties of cannabis. The government is open to learning and adopting the latest medical innovations. And because of that, I am hopeful.

As told to Adrija Bose

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