It’s 2020 and here in India we are still debating whether mental health is a concern-worthy issue. The Covid-19 pandemic has fired up the debate in India for the viewers of tv channels, scrollers of social media, readers of newspapers and for living room discussions. The investigation of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death has been raising the dust around several important issues that long awaited attention in the country. In the wake of the ongoing investigation, with the Hindi film industry at the centre, it has become ever more important to discuss the relationship between drug use and mental health. 

The WhatsApp chat leaks of Bollywood actresses and the distasteful TV coverage has left many questioning why this is all the media is talking about when significant events in the country are going unreported and underreported. But there’s no running away from the deeper underlying question of what is wrong with the Indian public discourse on both mental health and drug use, especially cannabis. 

The Usage of Cannabis: A Glimpse Through the Laws 

A quick look at the history of laws controlling the use of cannabis in India can be very revealing. India became a signatory to the International Treaty Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1985 under pressure from the U.S. The treaty classed cannabis with hard drugs, thereby criminalising its sale, export, production and possession. This ban, under the Rajiv Gandhi enacted Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, included the flower and the fruit of the plant cannabis but excluded the leaves used to make bhaang owing to its socio-religious connections for the Hindu culture. So the government banned the recreational use of weed but allowed its use for customary and religious practices. At present, under the act, anyone found possessing, consuming or production in weed (flower of cannabis) or hash, its resin form, can be charged with fine and arrest depending on the quantity on hand.  

Amid the ongoing global debate on legalising cannabis, while countries like the U.S. (who led the modern day war on Cannabis) and many European and Latin American countries have removed restrictions on its medicinal and recreational usage, why is India still holding on to the old laws? India’s position on the use of the drug has been debated mostly on account of the revenue losses that it has accumulated over the years due to the ban. And while this is part of the ongoing debates, the criminalisation of Cannabis has issued fresh public reminders about the drug’s role in the mental health discourse of the century. 

The Cult of Drugs, Debates and Media Trials 

The television news coverage of the ongoing cannabis-related trial of Bollywood actresses goes on to assess the drug as demonic and immoral. A great deal of this sensationalised TV time could have been dedicated to educating the Indian public on debunking the myths and the taboo around it. According to the research material available from the countries where the ban on Cannabis has been lifted and from lived personal experiences gathered by mental health experts, the drug’s use has been found to have aided people with many mental health conditions. This includes Depression, Anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorders among other chronic psychological pain conditions being suffered by patients of Cancer, Epilepsy, Chronic pain, Dementia and people in Palliative care. Dr. Dayal Mirchandani, a leading mental health expert and founder of NGO National Addiction Research Centre addressed the issue recently and said that many of his patients use the drug recreationally cum medicinally. Stressing the importance of recognising the medical benefits of Cannabis, he stated that while he is in no position to prescribe the drug, he does not proscribe it either. He expressed that the world needs more research on the use of Cannabis for mental health conditions so that it can be confidently and safely prescribed (or proscribed, depending on the condition) to mitigate psychological pain. His address added some words of caution and exception as some of his patients have been found to become dependent on the drug and there are others who have experienced psychosis from the use of the drug. However, he emphasises that Cannabis is not the drug to be demonised and criminalised, but to be regulated and researched. Unlike chemical drugs like Cocaine or Heroin, ‘At our NGO’, he says, ‘we treat Cannabis like a habit not addiction’. The Indian Hemp Drug Commission has concluded that moderate cannabis use causes no physical harm, mental injuries or impairment to moral judgment.

To debunk the stigma around the drug further, he mentioned that it must be understood and accepted that everyone does something or the other once a week to alter their state of consciousness and experience something that makes reality livable for them. Some people skip, jump or do gymnastics and others resort to harmful and fatal things like country liquor or whatever locally made illicit liquor is available. In Indian cities, people who are most vulnerable to drug laws and incarceration are the poor who do not have the financial or legal aid to pay fines or get release from jails. These are the people, he continues, who face all kinds of harsh experiences on the streets and from very young ages start to resort to Cannabis and other cheap alternatives (from eraser fluid to heroin). But he maintains that a line must be drawn between hard drugs and forms of Cannabis. For the poor who have no culture of hospital routines and even when they do, the mental health professionals are not culturally attuned to their realities, he explains that decriminalisation and legalisation of Cannabis use can bring relief from frivolous punishments and poor quality of the drug on the illegal market. 

While the debates around the drug’s use and the related stigma has many nuances, one of them is the recognition of the nativity of the plant to the Indian subcontinent. Its first indigenous uses have been found to date back to 2000 BCE. Some of its components are still used in Ayurvedic medicines, prescribed by Ayurvedic doctors to relieve pain and provide a calming effect. Moreover, there’s no factual correctness found in the differentiated legality practised in our country between the illegal weed/hash and the legal bhaang. Bhaang has both THC and CBD as active components that provide the intoxicating and the anxiety- reducing effects of cannabis respectively. A distinction needs to be made between chemical drugs/psychedelics and cannabis, Dr. Dayal notes, where the latter can be a recreational drug but the former cannot. Although research in some parts of the world is pointing towards a future of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy also. Notwithstanding the psychedelic debate, in its tryst with cannabis though, India is seeing its fair share of calling to start taking the benefits of legalising the drug seriously. If anything should come out of SSR’s cannabis consumption, his battle with mental health, and his eventual demise, it is not a sensationalising drug war against Bollywood (and other language film industries) but instead an awakening that we need better research and understanding on Cannabis’ effects on mental health. 

 

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