Since times immemorial, mankind has been fascinated by certain naturally occurring substances which when consumed gave them a surrealistic feeling. There is archeological evidence to prove the use of Coca and Cannabis leaves as far back as 6000BC.
In ancient times, consumption of these leaves, as mind altering substances, was intricately linked with the healing of the ailments through a protagonist called Shaman. There is ample evidence in the recorded history to indicate that from Himalayas in the east to the Andes in the west these naturally occurring substances formed a major part of the repertoire of a healer. These substances were also used by ascetics and the yogis to construct an alternative reality so as to escape the humdrum and drudgery of the everyday life and to connect to God.
There have been a number of plants which have been used for psychedelic experiences all over the world like Cannabis, Coca and Poppy etc. There are numerous other plants including certain type of fungi known as "magic mushrooms" which are being used to induce a trance like high in the users.
The earliest plant, perhaps in the recorded history, is mentioned in the Rigveda and this plant gave a powerful drink called Soma. This drink Soma has been placed at a very high pedestal, almost equal to many demigods in Vedic religious rituals. This drink also finds a place in early Persian literature mainly in their book called 'Zend Avesta'. The identity of the plant however, has not been established till now.
Almost at the same time when the Soma was being consumed in North-West India, another plant was being immortalised in the far reaches of the Central and South America. The plant was Coca and its leaves were consumed by the people almost as a religious ritual. It is the same plant which has given us the modern drug called Cocaine. This plant along with tobacco, was introduced to the rest of the world by Francisco Pezzaro and his conquistadors who colonised Central and South America in the middle ages.
On more plant which had a pride of the place in the Indian folklore and mythology is cannabis which is also known as marijuana, Ganja or Bhang. This plant is likely to have spread from eastern Himalayas to Middle East, Europe and then to Americas.
Poppy seeds have been an integral part of Indian cuisine and have been used to impart a unique flavour to the food since ages. However, resin extracted from the poppy flower, also called opium, is a very potent psychoactive substance and has been used for centuries not only to induce a false sense of well being to the user, but also as a medicine in various forms.
It is noteworthy that all the drugs made from the above plants which are now illegal the world over, were not only legal but also were promoted and prescribed for cure of ailments ranging from tooth ache to menstrual cramps. A very popular coffee coloured soft drink was initially a green coloured drink with cocaine as its active ingredient and it was marketed as a drink which was "good for health". It was only after the addictive potential of cocaine led to its ban that the drink got its present colour. A wine called Marrianny wine was very popular in Europe in early 20th century as a cure for almost every disease and this was also made from cocaine. This is the case with almost all narcotic drugs and each one of them was promoted and prescribed as a medicine at least in the initial stages before their addictive potential was discovered. Even now, all these narcotic drugs are used to varying degrees for medicinal purposes under strict medical supervision like Morphine which is derived from opium, CBD oils derived from cannabis and some tinctures made from cocaine.
The world, however, has been quick to realise that all these drugs have a huge potential for addiction and hence amenable to abuse, leading to all kinds of deviance among its users. All these drugs, therefore, have been universally banned to prevent free production and distribution etc.
Cannabis is a unique drug in the sense that there is a concerted campaign to legalise its use not only for medicinal purpose, but also for recreation. Nine American states have totally legalised cannabis while 13 other states have decriminalised it. There are strong pressure groups in almost all countries which are lobbying hard to legalise marijuana.
The Advocates of marijuana legalisation advance arguments like, it is good for health, it has great medicinal value and that people are anyway falling prey to harmful strains of marijuana in absence of proper regularisation. They also declare that legalising marijuana shall allow proper research leading to a much better and scientific use of the plant. There have been studies which have shown that marijuana is useful in cases of adolescent epilepsy, nausea from chemotherapy and is also useful in improving appetite etc. While this may be true, there are hardly any studies to show the effect of marijuana consumption on healthy adults, whereas there are conclusive studies to prove that marijuana consumption in teenagers leads to brain damage, lower IQ and general indiscipline.
It is inconceivable to imagine that the substance which is so dangerous to an adolescent brain will have no effect on adult brain. In addition, the short term adverse effects of marijuana consumption include altered colour sense, altered sense of time, mood swings, compromised limb co-ordination, impaired thinking and memory, delusions, hallucinations and psychosis. There are some noticeable physical effects like spike in heart rate, sweating, lethargy etc. Users with existing heart disease are particularly vulnerable to physical damage. As far as the long-term effects are concerned, a study from Duke University, New Zealand showed that the general IQ of the users dropped by eight points with the prolonged use of marijuana. marijuana, therefore, cannot by any logic be thought of as beneficial to health of the users when it has such dangerous short-term effects.
There can be no argument against the use of marijuana for medical purposes and all research and usage should be welcomed as long as sick people are benefitted by it, just like by the use of morphine etc. The debatable point, however, is whether the marijuana should be made available for free use among the population just like alcohol. To understand this issue let us briefly look at the chemical ingredients of marijuana. There are about 500 different chemical compounds in marijuana and at least 100 compounds known as Cannabinoids which act on Cannabinoid receptors in the brain and are responsible for creating or enhancing certain type of sensations. The most important Cannabinoids are Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which are responsible for the feeling of euphoria in the user and Cannabidiol (CBD) which has some health benefits. All species of cannabis contain these two compounds in various proportions. While THC is responsible for causing the high, CBD is thought to be countering the euphoric effect caused by THC. CBD is also useful in many medical conditions and is being prescribed as a stand alone medicine for epilepsy, pain relief etc. The recreational use of marijuana mainly depends on the concentration of THC and higher the THC more the euphoric effect. Selective breeding of cannabis has ensured that the percentage of THC has grown by six times during last 30 years in the presently available strains and this points to increased illegal recreational use of marijuana.
There are already Cannabinoid like chemicals in the brain which bind to certain receptors to release chemicals like dopamine which gives us a feeling of relaxation and euphoria. THC, when consumed, binds with these receptors and causes a large quantity of dopamine to be released in the brain leading to trance like feeling. It is logical to argue that when these receptors are continuously fed external stimuli, the natural dynamic balance in the brain gets disturbed which in the long-run leads to addiction. Moreover when euphoric effect of marijuana wears off, anxiety, nervousness, depression return with a bang forcing the user to seek another dose. It is therefore, foolhardy to argue that marijuana is not addictive. Ninety per cent of the Marijuana is consumed by smoking and this smoke is equally dangerous as that of a cigarette and will have the same impact on the lungs. National Institute of Health has reported that there are noticeable adverse effects of frequent marijuana use on the general well-being of users like lower life satisfaction, poor mental health, poor physical health and relationship problems. The euphoric effect of marijuana is definitely lighter as compared to that of cocaine or heroin and that is precisely why there will always be a tendency for a user to graduate to harder drugs as marijuana use does not keep providing the same high over a period of time. There are documented studies which prove the damaging effects of marijuana on reproductive health of both male and females and these effects are particularly severe on the developments of brain of the foetus.
It may, therefore be concluded that the mere fact that marijuana may help in temporary relief from anxiety or depression, does not qualify it to be made a freely available drug of choice.
The question as to why there is such a push towards legalisation of marijuana can be answered in terms of the economics of marijuana trade. Next year annual revenue from alcohol worldwide shall touch 1.5 trillion dollars and from tobacco it shall touch half a trillion Dollars. Revenue from legal marijuana stands at 35 billion dollars. Assuming that a significant percentage of alcohol and tobacco users shall graduate to marijuana use, the scope for making huge money in marijuana trade is all there to see. The fact that we are already saddled with alcohol and tobacco does not automatically mean that we should make available another legal but dangerous psychoactive substance to the uninformed public with dangerous physical and psychological implications.
(The author is an IPS officer based in Bengaluru)