THEY are not desi votaries of acid guru Timothy Leary's positive views on mind-altering substances. But the conclusions drawn at the national workshop on 'Cannabis—Health Damage and Legislative Options' at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, that cannabis does not have adverse health effects may come as a shock to those who prescribe a blanket war against all categories of drug abuse. At the same time, the workshop's recommendations to the Home Ministry to reconsider existing laws may open the door to 'legalising' drugs from the female Cannabis Sativa plant—ganja, charas and bhang.
Legalising does not mean open sale and promotion of 'soft drugs', popularised by the flower children of the '60s. What it technically means is that the drug will be decriminalised and seen in the same perspective as it was prior to 1985 when the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act came into effect. This, according to some drug enforcement officials, would relieve the agencies involved in the implementation of the NDPS Act from the added burden of burning ganja fields and cracking down on those pushing what a section of doctors classify as a drug less harmful than alcohol.
Points out A.K. Srivastava, joint director, Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB): "Once the medical profession is able to provide a body of evidence and is unanimous on cannabis being only mildly harmful, we have no objection to making changes in the NDPS Act." According to him, the hemp plant—as cannabis is often called—grows wild and burning it down has often been a futile exercise: "Cannabis is a very hardy weed. You burn it and it grows back in a year."
The harmful effects of cannabis abuse is a subject of much controversy in India as well as in the West. However, a body of medical opinion is growing in Europe that the harmful effects of softer drugs have been widely exaggerated and misunderstood. The Lancet , a respected medical journal, in its November '95 issue even commented in an editorial that "smoking of cannabis, even long term, is not harmful to health yet this widely-used substance is illegal just about everywhere." The journal goes on to note that "cannabis has become a political football ...and sooner or later politicians will have to stop running scared and address the evidence." The new evidence is in fact nothing new and merely confirms the conclusions drawn by the Royal Hemp Commission in 1895 that cannabis products had benign effects and that they caused no irreversible health or social damage even if used on a long-term basis. Reversible intoxication also occurs with cannabis which temporarily affects motor functions. But this also happens with alcohol intake.
Indeed, those who advocate legalising cannabis like to draw comparisons between its health and social effects and that of alcohol. Points out Devendra Mohan, head of the department of psychiatry at AIIMS: "When compared to alcohol I would say that cannabis is less harmful. It is nonaddictive and less anti-social. Have you heard of anyone dying of cannabis overdose? With alcohol, crisis behaviour probability is higher and well documented in accidents, domestic violence and sexual crimes. However, you don't associate such behaviour with cannabis abuse."
Not everyone agrees. Doctors, who have been treating drug addicts, point out that those who start with softer drugs often graduate to harder opiates like morphine and heroin, and that ganja and charas is very often the route the addict regresses along. Also, cannabis use interferes with immediate memory and affects driving skills. Besides, prolonged use of ganja, charas and bhang could damage the liver.
Then there is the ethical question—whether a drug should be decriminalised because it is relatively chant of the Drug Abuse Information, Rehabilitation and Research Centre: "I am against legalisation of drugs in any form. If the idea is to reduce the crime component then the logic is distorted. It is like legalising pinching bottoms to reduce cases of rape. The Government should see drug abuse as a crime where the seller as well as the abuser is penalised. Experiments to decriminalise drugs in UK, Holland, Alaska and the Scandinavian countries have resulted in increased drug abuse."
But the western model does not quite fit the Indian scenario, say the school that supports decriminalisation of softer drugs. The argument is that India has learnt to live with cannabis for thousands of years and a very small percentage of the population uses the drug. In fact, before India signed the Single Geneva Convention of 1961, which classified cannabis products and opiates as narcotics, ganja, charas and bhang were sold through government outlets. This was a system laid down by the British government in the early part of the century. The user had to get a certificate from a government doctor and had to register with the outlet for his quota.
However, at the 1961 Geneva Convention, it was made mandatory for all signatory nations to stop the use and sale of the drugs listed as harmful. India was given 25 years to ban the use of cannabis products since its abuse was widespread. When the exemption period ran out in 1985, the Ministry of Finance set up the NDPS Act which codified control procedures for opium, cannabis and psychotropic substances. But the medical profession was not consulted before the Act was formalised. This workshop was to review the legislative options of cannabis use 10 years after the Act came into force.
Even the Act recognises cannabis as a soft drug. It recommends a lighter sentence for possession of both ganja and hashish compared to the jail term prescribed for violations involving opiate drugs, like heroin and its impure form—brown sugar. While possession of five grams of charas would invite a year's sentence and 500 gms of ganja would put you in jail for six months, a heroin or morphine rap could mean sentences up to 15 years and in severe cases of trafficking, even the death penalty. What makes the NDPS Act severe is that in both opiate and non-opiate drugs, including cannabis, the onus is on the user to prove that he or she is in possession of the drug for personal consumption and not for trafficking if the courts are to take a lenient view and award a lighter sentence.
Narcotics bureau officials point out that there is very little international trafficking in cannabis products. The reason is that ganja, for instance, cannot be packed in a compact form and since profit margins are low, bulk transfers are necessary to make any illegal international trade in it viable.
Also, the cannabis plant is found in other parts of the world and is not exclusive to India. Therefore, most traffickers prefer heroin in which profit margins are far higher. Points out Srivastava: "At the NCB we don't focus on the cannabis trade. We leave that to the local police." It will not be easy to legalise cannabis overnight since various international treaties to which India is a signatory are involved. But decriminalisation of the drug is a possibility a section of the medical profession feel should be considered. Says Dr Mohan: "We are not saying that you should advertise Indian cannabis as the best in the world on STAR TV. What we are saying is that the Government need not take the view it has taken on a drug which is relatively less harmful and which has been consumed in this country for centuries."