The rest of the world is figuring out the good that cannabis can do. We knew it back in the day — but have a backward attitude today.
When 12 year old Billy Caldwell was admitted to a London hospital with severe epileptic seizures this June, he became a cause celebre. He had gone 250 days without a seizure, thanks to a medication containing cannabis oil. Then the British Home Office banned Billy’s doctor from prescribing it, so his mother, Charlotte, travelled to Canada to purchase more of the oil. But it was confiscated at Heathrow when she returned. When the medication ran out, the frequency and intensity of Billy’s seizures became life-threatening.
Billy’s mother made several public appeals to the British government. The UK press ran the story relentlessly, and finally the Home Secretary was forced to intervene, “This morning, I’ve used an exceptional power as Home Secretary to urgently issue a licence to allow Billy Caldwell to be treated with cannabis oil.”
Already legal in Canada, the US FDA recently approved a cannabis-based drug, called Epidiolex, for treating children like Billy Caldwell. Ironically, it is not yet legal in the UK, where its manufacturer, GW Pharmaceuticals, is based. Legal prescriptions for epileptic children like Billy Caldwell will have to wait until mid-2019, when it is expected that the European Medicines Agency will approve it for use in the UK and Europe.
The approvals process for pharmaceuticals is a vexed subject; the debate is bracketed by those who would like more freedom for patients to try drugs still under testing, and those who take the extreme precautionary principle. When it come to drugs based on cannabis, the prudishness around drug use adds another layer of delay.
Luckily, this reluctance is fading in several parts of the globe. Twenty nine nations have allowed the medical use of cannabis, 30 states of the US allow some legal use, and Canada has recently legalised its recreational use. Speaking in the context of the Epidiolex approval, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said: “This (is) a reminder that advancing sound development programmes that properly evaluate active ingredients contained in marijuana can lead to important medical therapies. And the FDA is committed to this kind of careful scientific research and drug development.”
Ayurveda long recognised cannabis as a key ingredient in significant medication, to combat nausea, alleviate pain, reduce fat, and boost virility. On its own, though, it was seen an upavisha, a minor poison. One Ayurvedic practitioner mused that the popular use of marijuana as an intoxicant was something Ayurveda frowned upon, as being the polar opposite to the essential goal of Ayurveda, which is mental clarity.
It was the recreational use of marijuana, though, that tagged India with the drug. In 1893, the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission reported that consumption of hemp drugs was accompanied by “no evil results at all”, and resulted in “no moral injury whatever.” The subjects of the study included “doctors, coolies, yogis, fakirs, heads of lunatic asylums, bhang peasants, tax gatherers, smugglers, army officers, hemp dealers, ganja palace operators and the clergy.”
From the early 1960s, though, India came under global pressure, led by the US, to abandon its laissez faire attitude towards marijuana. Finally, in 1985, the Rajiv Gandhi government succumbed, and passed the NDPS Act, which outlawed all narcotic drugs, including marijuana.
Now, the global tide is turning. This year, the Thai government took steps that would make Thailand the first country in Asia to legalize medical cannabis. Like India, Thailand has an indigenous medical tradition that recognised the efficacy of marijuana, specifically in dealing with pain, nausea, and distress during childbirth. The Thai Cannabis Company was set up in the belief that this medicinal heritage will combine well with Thailand’s flourishing medical tourism industry, and is collaborating with the Maejo University to develop cannabis-based products and medicines.
In the US, states which have legalised medical marijuana are seeing a fall-off in demand for conventional pain relievers and sleep aids. Expect to see a great deal of research into the therapeutic effects of cannabis extracts and derivatives in the near future.
India, I fear, is too taken by the manufactured morality around marijuana. We will be left way behind the rest of the world in developing cannabis-based pharmaceuticals, despite having a 2000 year head-start.
Yes We Cannabis! — Devangshu Datta