Is marijuana bad for us? The social life of a medicinal plant and a dangerous drug

As the US refuses reclassification of the drug, cannabis continues to be treated as dangerous and without medicinal property Photograph:( Getty )

WION Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Aug 13, 2016, 09.43 AM (IST) Madhumita Saha

The social life of cannabis is equally colourful and controversial. The ancient worlds of Central Asia, China and India were aware of the medicinal values of the plant. The South Asian religions, particularly, Hinduism celebrated the close association of the plant with spirituality. However, with historical shifts in power relations between countries and cultures over time, the popular perceptions about cannabis have changed for the worse. So drastic has been the shift in perception that possession of cannabis is illegal in most countries, and has been since the beginning of widespread cannabis prohibition in the late 1930s. Recently, the US government has refused to reclassify cannabis as a “Schedule I” drug, thereby, effectively, branding it as a dangerous substance with no medical use. 

Cannabis is known by many names, such as bhang, marijuana, hashish, charas, ganja which indicate its widespread use as a curative and a recreational drug across the globe. Cultivated since around 4000 BCE, people were quick to discover that cannabis is capable of triggering a “conscious shift”; depending on the type being used, it either produced a relaxing and calming effect or made a person energetic and euphoric. The plant’s impact on human mind - its capacity to “alter consciousness”- became the most important charge against it, which eventually led to its fall from grace. 

Historically speaking, doctors and chemists have looked up favourably to cannabis. It was Dr WB O'Shaughnessy, the Irish doctor working in Kolkata, the capital of the British-Indian empire, who scientifically validated the medical properties of the plant in 1839. Following the release of Shaughnessy’s research paper in the Transactions of Medical and Physical Society of Bengal, the doctors and scientists of the British Empire continued to conduct a range of experiments on cannabis, applying it on dogs, cats, pigs, goats, crows, vultures, and even fish. Calcutta Medical College, particularly, became the seat of these early experiments. Victorian scientific practices, therefore, spilled out of its narrow metropolitan confine to include the so-called colonial periphery in its intellectual enterprise.

The systematic experiments carried out on the plant helped to scientifically ascertain its medical utility as a cure for diseases, such as rheumatism, rabies, tetanus, and cholera. But it will be wrong to suggest that all was well with the plant. An equally forceful group of critics of the plant expressed concern about the plant’s impact on human mind. Statistics piled up at lunatic asylums of UK, and in colonial India, on how the significant proportion of the cases treated there were caused by the use of cannabis preparations. For a political regime that was hell-bent to control its newly acquired Indian subjects, the plant came to be identified as a significant source of disorder. Britain, therefore, became more negatively attuned to cannabis.

In the subcontinent, however, the plant's popularity among common people and its use by the Ayurvedic experts continued, as very few in the villages had access to modern medical expertise. They needed cannabis to assuage painful diseases. In festivals, such as the Holi, cannabis provided a moderate psychedelic experience. It acted as stress-relievers and helped with the people’s desire to forget and mentally escape the mundane and the drudgery of everyday existence. Though the educated and the well-off often looked down at bhang consumption as a low-caste thing, evidence from the traditional texts suggests that even Hindu gods have not been immune from its impact; Lord Shiva has been a well-known cannabis-addict whose temperament is kept under control from the consumption of the drug. But of course, Shiva who resides in cremation grounds and dresses in tiger skin and ash has been one of the least gentrified of all Hindu deities. 

Similar class issues crept up in the US which contributed to the criminalisation of cannabis, causing a radical shift in its identity as a medicinal plant. Mexican immigrants entering the US introduced marijuana to the country, popularising the recreational use of the drug along with the much-tabooed use of heroin, opium, and morphine. By 1937, twenty-three states in the US outlawed marijuana. Cannabis was still used in various medical treatments, although very much controlled by different government agencies. The worst blow for cannabis came in 1973, when it was categorised as a Schedule I drug with no accepted medical use. 

The film industry in India has not lagged behind in casting aspersions on the consumption of cannabis. In the 1960s when hordes of ganja-smoking white hippies roamed the Indian cities and religious sites, it possibly rattled the middle-class Indian sensibility. They interpreted it as a sign of loose morals, creeping into the Indian society from the West. Popular culture was quick to pick up the theme. Films, such as Hare Rama Hare Krishna (HRHK) and Silsila carried songs in which the principal actors and actresses were shown to drinking bhang and smoking ganja. In the film HRHK, the pot-smoking sister of the hero is portrayed as having gone astray, rejecting the safe and sane fold of her family. Similarly, the hero of Silsila, on drinking bhang during Holi, forgets family values and falls for another woman; an extramarital relationship is one of the biggest social taboo in the subcontinent.

In recent times, however, strong voices are resurfacing in the US in favor of allowing patients to legally access medical cannabis in some form. Countries, such as Israel, Canada, Uruguay, the Netherlands carry out vigorous treatment and research programmes in their own country. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledges the therapeutic value of cannabis, particularly, in treating fatal diseases, such as cancer and AIDS. In 2016, the United Nation General Assembly convened in New York City to revise the international drug control treaty, in which many health and human right experts and policy groups have argued that scheduling of cannabis in the UN system represents a “historical anomaly”.

A strong public movement has also been gaining strength in India, which not only advocate the decriminalization of cannabis based on its numerous medical usages but sees all effort to ban the plant as prostration of the Indian government to the pressures of the western organizations and corporations. Advocacy groups, such as the Great Legislation Movement (GLM), want to rescue the “indigenous Ganjic culture” from “corrupted” laws which, they consider, have been inspired by examples from the West. GLM wants a presidential apology to the ministry of Ayurveda as well as to the cancer victims of the world who suffered the most from the ban. Physicians and researchers have also come forward with a demand to integrate the Ayurvedic and the Allopathic systems. In this effort, a pioneering role is being played by doctors of All India Institute of Medical Sciences at Bhubaneswar in the eastern Indian state of Orissa. 

The Orissa government is an exception to the Indian context. Unlike other Indian states, it does not consider chewing or drinking of bhang as illegal. But more than scientific reason prompting this approach, religious-economic reasons have a greater role to play. Evidently, the Orissa government earns huge revenue by selling bhang because it is considered a necessary ingredient in the religious ritual of Lord Jagannath, the main deity of the region who draws millions of devotees from around the world every year.

The story of cannabis is, therefore, complex and global. It cannot be cast along a simple, binary narrative of tension between the East and the West, science and religion, criminals and virtuous, and tradition against modernity. The controversy around the plant opens up deep-seated historical issues, involving regulating authorities, social perceptions, and religious customs as well as economic forces. It is the conjunction of these factors that shape the laws we have been getting to govern ourselves by.

Madhumita Saha

The writer is an academic-turned journalist. She taught history at Drexel University and New York University before joining WION.