By Upatissa Pethiyagoda –
There are two rea sons that prompt me to re-visit the draft prepared some months ago. Firstly, Canada has reversed the criminalization of Cannabis, permitting it to be used for medical and leisure use. Secondly, the recent massive hauls of contraband by Police, Customs and Excise authorities of quantities whose street values are astronomical and point to a well organized criminal network. There are well-founded, ugly rumours of the involvement of those holding high political office. The nexus between such persons and criminal gangs, have led to a general revulsion against such substances. Unfortunately, the culprits continue in positions of power and wealth, where in more refined countries would invite jail and banishment from public life. Although our President has implied that the Draconian measures adopted by President Duterte of the Philippines , would bear imitation in our country. One hopes that our President has been mis-quoted.
Much material has been published on the subject of narcotics and other substances which affect nerve functions, mood as well as their addictive and intoxicant properties. Before serious and irreversible actions (eg execution) are taken, there is a need to recognize that all “narcotics” are not the same.
Narcotics in general fall into two major groups – the opioids derived from the gum from the opium poppy ( Papaver somniferum) and those from Cannabis ( Cannabis sativa). The most widely and legally grown cultivar of Cannabis is the hemp of commerce. The opioids include heroin, morphine and codeine. The latter deserve their ugly image as addictive, intoxicant and with harmful side effects. In contrast, the Cannabinoids – glorying under a vast number of names, including Marijuana, weed, pot, ganja, Hashish, The Sacred Plant and grass, are generally considered non-addictive, giving only transient effects and with few or no side effects. They are considerably more benign in this sense than tobacco or alcohol. Users tell of heightened tranquility and mood improvement, no hangover and a general feeling of exhilaration and euphoria – altogether pleasing.
Cannabinoids (as also the opioids) have been used for centuries mainly for pain relief, including the acute pains of terminal cancer. Cannabis, has been widely used in Ayurveda and as a meat tenderizer. There is copious and authoritative books and scientific papers on Cannabis, which has also been called the “Sacred Plant”, on account of its traditional use in Hindu festivals for as long as ten centuries ago.
Ayurveda has recognized its value for inclusion in several prescriptions. More recent work has shown it to be of astonishing value in relieving the symptoms and claimed to even cure, a plethora of common ailments. These include depression, epilepsy, Parkinsonism, diabetes, arthritis, cardiac and pulmonary afflictions and a near endless list of others. Literally, daily publications in reputable Journals and textbooks reveal a great potential. There is a lingering fear that indulgence in Cannabis could lead to graduation to harder drugs like heroin. There seems to be no convincing evidence that this is so. In fact, the opposite seems to be true – that Cannabis is probably an “Exit Drug” – that it is useful in weaning away hard drug users from their addiction.
Unfortunately, it being banned in many countries, has prevented Cannabis being subjected to the rigorous testing that is normally required before a drug can be approved. Thus, the bulk of evidence has been anecdotal. In the early thirties, when criminal mafias were involved in narcotic trading, the US banned all drugs suspected of being traded by criminal gangs. Marijuana and preparations derived from it were included in the ban. Until then, reputed pharmaceutical companies were selling it in many forms – tinctures, syrups, pastes, powders, capsules, tablets, inhalations and smokes. It even found use in recipes for biscuits and sweets.
Several countries and several US States have liberalized the medical as well as “recreational” use of Marijuana. The latest country to do so is Canada. It is likely that liberalization will spread rapidly and more virtues for this amazing substance will be uncovered. Therefore, is Sri Lanka making a grave error in its crusade of destroying Ganja Plantations? Evidence prompts a much more enlightened attitude towards this product – which could even be a major export commodity. Of course prices will decline when the mistaken aggression towards Ganja diminishes. For us, it will still remain a good prospect for land use in areas considered poor or marginal for other crops. It offers much opportunity for “value addition” in view of the many formulations that can offer an opportunity for exports to those regions where an enlightened approach allows entry. Criminalization of its use is clearly misdirected.
A rational approach is necessary as much of the information is anecdotal (naturally, when even experimentation is restricted by Law). This urges that a competent team should filter the claims made and to examine the subject in detail. A team representing Agricultural, Scientific, Health, Excise, Police and possibly even Religious (in anticipation of a puritanical reaction to good sense) be tasked with examining the existing wealth of published material available, to help develop an approach that is in our best interests.
This is therefore an appeal for a close study of evidence for and against, before precipitately rushing into destroying what may well be a great resource. A hostile and uninformed howl from the “Vasa Visa Nethi Krushikarma Sanvidanaya” will surely manifest. The attitude encapsulated in the pithy statement “My mind is already made up – please don’t confuse me with facts”, should not be permitted to interfere. On balance, it seems that Cannabis is more a Victim of prejudice than a Villain or Demon! Anecdotal experience may be forthcoming from unexpected and highly “respectable” sources!