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Medical marijuana could replace cancer drugs, then why is India still reluctant to legalise it?

Pressure is increasing on India, one of the world’s top stoner destinations, to legalise marijuana for medicine, the push triggered by the product’s growing acceptance worldwide as an alternative to cancer drugs.

New Delhi, on paper, has not allowed medical marijuana, even banned production and consumption of cannabis for over three decades. However, over the last few years, the health ministry has heard several petitions from both local and international organisations exhorting benefits of medicinal marijuana. The petitioners have also argued how this could be poor man’s answer to expensive cancer drugs.

Health Ministry officials in Delhi say there are over 30 proposals from various organisations seeking permission to extract cannabis oil for cancer treatment.

An official spokesperson from the office of the health minister, JP Nadda said there has been no decision to lift the ban. “A study group looked into it last year but suggested no changes. Some amendments were made into the NDPS Act but marijuana was not a part of it,” said the official spokesperson.

“The government ban on producing the plant is very much on, though its implementation is a definite crisis. No one will look at the proposals as long as the ban stays. The government is not even thinking about it,” said a senior ministry official - joint secretary rank - on conditions of anonymity.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

The official said New Delhi could take a realistic look at the situation if cancer patients reach an alarming situation in India. Currently, India has 3 million plus cancer patients, the figure could rise to 11 million by 2025.

Indian politicians have often argued in favour of lifting the ban. “This law is more than 30 years old and needs to change, especially when next door China is pushing marijuana oil for cancer treatment, even making clothes from marijuana plants,” says BJP MP Tathagata Satpathy. He has been vocal both inside and outside Parliament, supported by BJP members like former actor Vinod Khanna and AAP MPs from Punjab, but the health ministry did not budge. "There are strong lobbies that do not want this to happen, they are very strong," said Satpathy.

Even Indian medical practitioners have often pushed the government to lift the ban so that it could help facilitate studies on the actual usefulness of cannabinoids for cancer patients. As many as four top medical institutes, among them Delhi-based All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and Mumbai-based Tata Memorial Hospital and Research Centre, have asked for permission to test the oil for use in therapeutic situation and palliative chemotherapy, where there are no chances of it getting addictive.

Still, it has not happened in India.

“The West has taken the leap, medical marijuana is a fast selling product. Its for India to take the call, though there are many in India who use the product illegally,” says Prabir Sen, one of the world’s top data scientists who is working on a plan to push New Delhi agree to a marijuana medicine hospital in northeastern Meghalaya. Supplies, claims the Vancouver-based Sen, would never be in the problem in that region where the plant grows like wild shrubs all across the seven states in the region.

Sen and his team of investors are looking at a hospital for cancer patients to be treated with marijuana medicine which he claims has caused a rage across Canada where hospitals are asking patients openly if they would like to use it along with their expensive, allopathic cancer drug.

“If we get the permissions, it could be a pathbreaking initiative,” says Sen.

A 2007 Harvard study, considered the most comprehensive on Tetra Hydro Cannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive component of cannabis, said THC in three weeks flat induces tumour cell suicide while leaving healthy non-tumour cells alone in mice subjects and reduce cancer lesions by even more.

In Canada, Rick Simpson, a former power engineer, has earned accolades from millions across the globe for advocating cannabis oil usage to cure cancer. “Cannabis hemp plant is being outlawed by some countries only because of the threat it poses to big pharma companies which will never be able to compete cannabis oil is offered for cancer treatment,” says Simpson. His website explains how to extract and use cannabis oil.

What is interesting is that the process is followed by hundreds in India who extract the oil for cancer patients. On paper it is illegal in India, but those in it claim they do it discreetly and are getting good results.

Cannabis oil is worth a few dollars as compared to hundreds of dollars patients spend to buy cancer drugs. The Canadian government is now actively pushing the oil in markets where patients must procure it with a legitimate medical prescription.

“Canada imported the seeds from India, Thailand, Cambodia and Afghanistan to start this unique experiment which is showing results,” says Sen. Since 2000, Canadians have been allowed to possess and grow small amounts of pot for medical use.

The Canadian government began licensing such companies in 2014 to grow mass marijuana to meet increasing demand from patients suffering from diseases causing chronic pain, seizures and nerve problems.

But it is easier said than done in India, especially after New Delhi gave in to international pressure and banned production and consumption of cannabis in 1985. Possession of a kilogram of black and sticky hashish (charas) — a rich extract derived from procuring resin from freshly cut marijuana buds — is punishable by a minimum 10 years’ imprisonment.

But it has not deterred production, as well as consumption across India, where marijuana has been legally cultivated and sold for decades before the drug law. In remote, hilly villages, cannabis is consider the only cash crop grown in harsh weather and geographic conditions.

India’s aromatic “Malana Cream”, produced in Parvati Valley - a group of mountains in the upper reaches of the Himalayas - has earned legendary status among pot smokers across the world, even found in coffee shops in Amsterdam. The product has twice won the High Times Cannabis Cup.

Currently, the Himachal Pradesh government estimates 240 hectares being used for cannabis cultivation, producing more than 12,000 kilograms. The actual figure is almost the double. And these are figures for just one state.

“India is the best ground for checking out medical marijuana, there is no dearth of supplies and it does not kill you unless you are smoking kilos,” says Viki Vaurora, a passionate campaigner for medical marijuana. For some years, Vaurora - a musician and recording engineer - and his team are trying hard to bust myths around the much much maligned weed and spread awareness about its uses, especially in palliative cancer care on social media with online communities like the Great Legislation Movement which has over 3000 members. Aurora even hosted India's first ever Medical Cannabis Conference last year in Bengaluru.

The Indian government is still not budging.

Updated Date: Dec 10, 2016 12:20 PM

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