21 September, 2020

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Cannabis – Villain Or Victim?

By Upatissa Pethiyagoda

Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda

The horror of narcotics being smuggled into the country, regular seizures by the authorities and ugly rumours of the involvement of those high in office and criminality, have led to a general revulsion against such substances. Many have not been made aware of the copious and authoritative books that have been published on the subject of narcotics and substances which affect nerve functions, mood as well as their intoxicant properties 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. They 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. The Literature provides evidence that Cannabis, also known as The Sacred Plant, on account of its use in Hindu festivals , has been in use for as long as ten centuries.

Ayurveda has recognized its value for inclusion in several prescriptions. More recent work has shown it to be of astonishing value in symptomatic relief or even cure of 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 is, by being useful in weaning away hard drug users from their addiction. 

Several countries and several US States have liberalized the medical as well as “recreational” use of Marijuana. Many preparations as powders, capsules, tablets, tinctures, inhalations, pastes, cookies and smokes are sold. 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 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 some 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 Religious  (in anticipation of a puritanical reaction to good sense) be tasked with examining the existing wealth of material available as reliable evidence, 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!

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    I remember some where during the 1970s, when we were undergrads, there was a big debate about Ganja (Local name for Cannabis) between the Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Colombo (Dr. Kottagoda ) and the Professor of Chemistry at Vidyodya University (Dr.Chandre Dharmawardana who still writes to the Colombo Telegraph).

    During that debate, Dr Dharmawardana was claiming that Cannabis was quite harmless compared to tobacco, while Dr. Kottegoda kept calmly puffing his pipe full of tobacco, and saying that Ganja is a dangerous ADDDCTIVE DRUG WHILE TOBBACCO HAS A CALMING EFFECT of the person.

    Prof. Ramakrishna of Colombo University, the Professor of Psychiatry and the Government expert on Narcotics also spoke. Most of them were against Ganja. An Ayurvedic phyisican also spoke on the side of Dr. Dharmawardana and supported Ganja and demanded its decriminalization as it is an important component of many ayurvedic formulations.

    The debate was hosted by the Chemical Society of Sri Lanka, and two Ganja plants had been provided for people to see (wans’t it illegal?). By the end of the debate, people had quietly stripped the two trees of leaves to take home or eat!

  • 0
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    I remember the episode very differently – I was a junior medical student at that time in the Colombo Medical Faculty. Prof Kottegoda being a very good pharmacologist, argued that the pharmacological features of cannabis were much less deleterious than that of alcohol. In fact in the Medical Student Newsletter, he mentioned that he had got some ganja from Maradana (through Rogus, the laboratory attendant in Pharmacology); he wanted to experience it and not write theoretical comment. He had smoked it and found the effect to be mild and if euphoriant. He was not against ganja.

    There was no Prof Ramakrishna (Prof of Psychiatry in Colombo); the first Prof of psychiatry in Colombo was Prof Channa Wijesinghe who is now in Australia.

    On looking back, this innocence was hilarious as we had the Dean of the Colombo Medical Faculty being mentioned as smoking a prohibited substance in the student newsletter.

    Ironically later on the teaching in pharmacology in the lecture on substances of abuse was that alcohol was a much more dangerous substance than ganja. Unfortunately this has not contributed to an enlightened medical community.

    You have heard of the story of the Magistrate giving the order to destroy the confiscated gunny bags of ganja in the court premises by burning them and people downstream doing deep breathing exercises!

  • 1
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    Thank you Upatissa for writing courageously on Cannabis. Certainly if used in moderation there are so many benefits and volumes have been written about it. Medical cannabis is prescribed now in many countries for many ailments including the after effects of chemotherapy. It is more than a million% better than alcohol and the irony is alcohol is legal while the social, domestic, psychological and health issues associated with alcohol are worsening day by day. Just talk to families who are devastated by alcoholism in their homes. Rehab is left to volunteer social workers while the govt that reaps the benefits of billions of rupees in excise duties takes a back seat. A person “high” on cannabis is (generally) calm, creative, laid back, loves to laugh and very hungry. From what I know, the cannabis available now in Sri Lanka is doctored with various substances which can cause psychotic effects. Driving after cannabis is anyway not recommended. Neither is it safe to combine it with alcohol. Vaping rather than smoking seems to be a better option that is practiced by many people around the world. See the Top 5 Books on Medical Marijuana here https://patriotcare.org/top-5-books-medical-marijuana/

  • 1
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    All the available data and research indicates clinically alcohol and nicotine has much more harmful effect than cannabis. That too, in most of the studies the smoke which is inhaled with cannabis ( not the cannabis) is responsible for respiratory issues and COPD caused after prolonged chronic use. Due to the fact the cannabis smokers tend to inhale and hold the smoke for longer time to get more effect. Cannabis which is consumed in other forms should not have this issue. Other than this there are some early studies ( not conclusive)indicated possible harm to brain/neuronal development in teens and adolescents where development is active. Long term studies indicate amotivational syndrome and rare mood related issues.Where as the benefits from regulated use of cannabis seems to be beneficial in chronic medical issues, control of pain, muscle relaxant, increase appetite, treatment of glaucoma and palliative care of cancer/terminally ill patient.

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    In case of nicotine every puff turns out to be harmful to a person.The l impact of alcohol is global. It does affect both physical and mental health. There is no organ spared by this menace. But due to various reasons including religious, political, financial and cultural , the public is mislead with myth.Especially alcohol is glorified, socially accepted and promoted by industries for profits. More than half of the states in US has now legalized cannabis. The same is taking place in Canada, Europe and Australia. But Asian countries are known for lethargy and not proactive. India just recently decriminalized homosexuality, suicide and sex outside of marriage. Imagine a person who is driven to suicide then getting a tag of a criminal ??? So expecting any progress in such issues, is a mirage. In Lanka even today if you carry any sign resembling of Buddha (tattoo/dress) is a criminal offence??? It is funny when a person is seen passed out of alcohol, the naive bystanders blame it on ‘GANJA’

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    Please note that the writings of mine are not approval but facts. What is not harmful today may turn out to be different after years. Because there is not enough data,study, research or analysis is done on cannabis. On nicotine and alcohol though the industries may say otherwise, we have enough to quote the adversities.

  • 0
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    I also attended that meeting of the Institute of Chemistry on Ganja, some 45 years ago in 1973. Both comments above (by Jesudasan, and by Katha ) are I think correct where they overlap.

    The late Dr Ramakrishna was the chairman of the meeting as he was probably the head of the Institute of Chemistry, and indeed the Prof. of Psychiatry at Kinsey Rd was Dr. Channa Wijesinghe. Prof. Kottagoda used to smoke a pipe, and probably did smoke it during the session, because I think the Daily News reported the event saying that:

    A Professor of chemistry tells the Dean of Medicine to put pot in his pipe instead of tobacco !

    The professor of chemistry was indeed Dr Dharmawardana, Vidyodaya University, while Dr. Kottegoda was the Dean of the medical faculty, Colombo University.

    However, I think Katha is quite correct in saying that Dr. Kottagoda took a milder view of Ganja when compared to the menace of alcohol that Dr Kottagoda decried.

    How were the two Ganja plants transported to the meeting without getting caught by the police?
    The story at the time in Vidyodaya University circles was that Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP, had provided a police escort to bring the two plants from Hambantota! Before he became an MP, Mahinda R had worked at the library of the Vidyodaya University!

  • 0
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    Cannabis is a villain.
    The mother of all villains is tobacco. At one stage we glorified this villain. The world has now realised the mistake and lot of money is being spent on developing the antidote.
    We must not make the same mistake with cannabis.

  • 0
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    Pillai, what is your response on alcohol.

  • 0
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    Cannabis not something new to Sri lanka. Sri lanka had even poppy related or HErone related ABIN. CAnnabis was introduced to North america by migrating Chinese. Earlier it was a banned substance in North america because it was introduced by Chinese. Some white faulks in there developed that into different varities and kept on consuming. Now, here in North america it si available in high Active ingredient varites as well as varieties for other purpsoes. Gvots went out of control in it it became a few billion dollars worth industry and then decided to use the oppostunity to earn some taxes. But, it has not gone well. The owners of the industry are, ex-Politicians, rich people and powerful people. Now, even Pharmaceutical companies COKE like companies want to come into the business. So, the Sri lanka like countries are a good place becuse Every one is for there for a buck. Youngsters are vulnerable to advertisements and to be american or European life styles.

  • 0
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    I browsed through your article. IT looks you are another CHANDra Dharmawardane. Your choice is Cannabis. I say, I wrote the proper respose for it. Now it legalized in North america even though it is not working well. Pharmaceutical companies and COKE like companies want to use the oportunity. Sri lanka is a very good place. Youngsters have money and are stupid. Politicians are there ot make the whole country a Brothel, a Liquor shop, A Casino, A beech party etc., etc., I heare pain killers prescritions and consumptions are very high. So, Narcotics and the next thing needed legalized Marihuana use. That is why Sinhala buddhist culture in Sri lanka should be destroyed. that is anti-business.

  • 0
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    JD seems to have taken the more strong (and violence inducing) alcohol (compared to ganja, – cannabis) to write such ill-informed comment. Ganja was part of Sri Lankan culture a long, long time ago and co-existed peacefully and happily with an orderly society. Introducing Abin into the conversation shows the ignorance; Abin is opium and is not related to ganja.

    As for future problems, yes there are many more formal studies of the harmful long-term effects of alcohol and tobacco than ganja BUT the anecdotal evidence from a very large user experience does not point to any significant harm.

    Hence legalising it on benefit/risk basis is entirely reasonable.

    BTW, another anecdote from my medical school days. The 100th Anniversary was celebrated in mid-1970 and the Head of State (the Governor General, Mr WIlliam Gopallawa) was the Chief Guest at the Ceremony and the program was meticulously laid out with the final item, “The Governor General has tea with the Academic Staff in the Senior Common Room” and the Program displayed on the official Notice Board.

    At that time the SLFP had won the General Election and the invitation by the Governor General for Mrs SB to form a government was in the air.

    However the medical students in their wisdom had thought otherwise – Neatly added as the last item in the Program after Tea in the Senior Common Room was

    “The Governor General calls upon the Dean to form a Government”

    Would that have made a better Sri Lanka??!!!

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