A not-so-underground network of people who believe in the therapeutic use of cannabis oil are calling for the weed to be legalised
Sudeep*, a 28-year-old resident of Cox Town in Bengaluru, does not want to reveal his real name. He grows marijuana on his terrace, an offence that can put him behind bars for 15 years. He started smoking marijuana in college but stopped after he started working in a local filmmaking company. When a close friend’s mother was diagnosed with Stage III colorectal cancer last year, he searched the Internet for alternative cures. He soon met an old college mate, marijuana. “I found several references to cannabis oil as a potential cure,” he says, and he read up everything he could about what he calls an “ancient wonder medicine”.
“Cannabis oil is available in the market, but you really should know where to look, and it is super expensive,” he says. So, with the help of the Internet again, Sudeep decided to make the oil at home. The seeds were ordered online and soon the innocuous-looking plant with pointed serrated leaves took root in a few pots on his terrace. So far, he has made the oil twice and claims that his friend’s mother is feeling significantly better. “I can see an improvement. She is not feeling nauseous.”
This sentiment is echoed by other believers in the medical properties of marijuana, people who have been supplying cannabis oil to family and friends through word-of-mouth. Kiran, for instance, decided to make cannabis oil for a colleague diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer four months ago. Kiran mixes about 30 grams of the buds of female flowers with olive oil and boils the concoction in water for over an hour — “a rice cooker is ideal” — and strains the concentrate into a bottle. Although his colleague has yet to give him feedback, he believes it is bound to help. “Look at me,” he says. “I come from a family with diabetes and, touch wood, my blood sugar count is well in control.” This, he believes, is thanks to marijuana — “a few puffs” once or twice a week. He says he has become a more pleasant person, gets less angry, and has found it easy to stay away from nicotine and alcohol for several years now. “I have never overdone the smoking (of marijuana) and am not addicted to it,” he stresses.
The weed is also the last resort for those who have tried conventional treatments and failed to find a cure, be it for certain kinds of cancers, epileptic fits or pulmonary fibrosis, a debilitating and fatal disease. The key ingredient of cannabis oil is CBD or cannabidiol. It is not clear how it works but scientific opinion suggests that it plugs into the receptors on nerve cells. “There are not enough studies done on this, even in the West, to help reach a definite conclusion,” says Dr. Radheshyam Naik, consultant medical oncologist from HCG hospital, a specialty cancer hospital in Bengaluru. Marijuana’s illegal status means that no agency regulates the treatment providers, there are no specific rules governing the right dosage of the oil and, more important, no studies done on possible side effects.
Viki Vaurora, a 25-year-old activist fighting for the legalisation of marijuana through his campaign Great Legalisation Movement (GLM), fumes at what he calls “a great injustice” to a medicinal plant. “The plant was written about in the Atharvaveda, which is about 3,500 years old,” he says. “Besides, in north India, there are paan (betel leaves) shops that prepare bhang (an edible preparation of marijuana leaves) and openly sell it. But if one wants to grow the plant for medicinal use, then it becomes a crime?” Vaurora comments on the ban of marijuana in 1985. “I call it (the ban) a big, organised lobby crime,” he says. He quotes an Irish doctor, William O’ Shaughnessy, who visited India in the 1850s and observed that traditional Ayurvedic practitioners treated practically every disease with marijuana-based medicines. “He wrote about it in a paper and soon the West picked it up. Queen Victoria is said to have smoked cannabis to relieve menstrual cramps.”
Vaurora prepares cannabis oil for those who need it, charging only for the making of it. “It is more a humanitarian service,” he says, adding that marijuana helped him overcome severe hip pain caused by a cyst. “Without it I would have been in a wheelchair.” There are dangers of abusing the plant, he grants, “after all it is a psychotropic plant” but firmly believes that abusing marijuana is better than abusing alcohol, nicotine or hard drugs.
There are two types of marijuana: commercial cannabis, which is high in THC — the plant’s psychoactive chemical that is responsible for users getting high — and medical marijuana, which is an oil extracted from Cannabis indica that is low in THC and rich in CBD. Studies on the efficacy of the oil have been limited, as US federal laws against marijuana have acted as an obstacle. Dr. Naik points out that cannabis oil is known to reduce nausea, increase appetite and augment a feeling of wellbeing in a patient undergoing chemotherapy. “It works well as a support to cancer treatment,” he says.
Caregivers of patients who have been declared incurable are willing to take a gamble. Many don’t know about the odds and don’t care. They grasp at any straws they think might help. Bengalurean Hema Sundar in Bengaluru speaks poignantly of her 78-year-old mother whose pulmonary fibrosis suddenly accelerated at an alarming rate. She reached out to an online support group and came across Vaurora, who helped her start off the cannabis oil treatment. Today, she claims that her mother can be without oxygen for two to three hours a day. So far, the Great Legalisation Movement has garnered considerable traction online with over 13,000 supporters but ultimately the decision to legalise marijuana remains in the hands of the government.
Doctors who were interviewed for the story, are reluctant to make any recommendations about the therapy. The one-sided conversation has resulted in a somewhat shady and dubious approach. The downside of the ban, at least for the medical use cottage industry, is the risk of getting inferior quality oil that is also highly over-priced. If only there were enough clinical trials, rues Sudeep. The strain of doing something “illegal” is telling on him. But for trials to happen, the ban must be lifted. “It (manufacturing cannabis oil) can be one of the biggest Make in India projects,” enthuses Vaurora. For now, it is just another ray of hope for patients of life-threatening diseases and their caregivers.