Modi’s love for ayurveda may be just the push marijuana needed in India

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India’s new-found love for ayurveda, its ancient medicine system, may help mainstream marijuana in the country.

On Nov. 25, the Central Council For Research in Ayurvedic Sciences, a research body under India’s AYUSH ministry of traditional medicine, announced positive results from the first clinical study in India on the use of cannabis as a restorative drug for cancer patients. 

“In the pilot study conducted earlier this year, cannabis leaves-based drugs have been found effective in alleviating pain and other symptoms in cancer patients post chemo and radiotherapy,” the council’s director general Vaidya K S Dhiman told the Press Trust of India.

Two days earlier, the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research’s Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine (CSIR-IIIM), another government research body, had said it is developing three drugs from cannabis to treat patients of cancer, epilepsy, and sickle-cell anaemia.

The drugs would be “natural” instead of “synthetic,” said Rajendra Badwe, director of Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital, which will host the first clinical trials on 25 terminally ill cancer patients after the drug gets regulatory approval for human testing.

“We will be testing the drug in cancer patients for pain relief and as an anti-emetic (to prevent vomiting). We are also trying to see whether the way the whole human being becomes complacent under the influence of cannabinoids—the feeling of elation, the feeling that everything is comfortable—translates into a cell,” he said. “While we’re treating cancer, whether it is by surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, can we put the tumour into complacency?”

Ram Vishwakarma, director of CSIR-IIIM, said they have begun tests on small animals after choosing a variety of the plant that has low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychotropic compound, and high cannabidiol (CBD), the essential component of medical marijuana. 

“We collected varieties of the plant from the Himalayas, and tested for which has the most CBD. We have zeroed in on a cannabis sativa plant from which we can get 4-6% CBD,” Vishwakarma said.

Ayurveda, the ancient medicine system developed in India, recommends small doses of cannabis to treat several ailments, from meningitis to anaemia. India’s stringent anti-marijuana laws also technically allow for medical research, but such use has been non-existent until now.

Among the biggest bottlenecks to the wider understanding and adoption of marijuana is cultivation.

While some traditional forms of cannabis can be legally consumed in India, cultivation of the plant itself is prohibited. In April 2017, India’s ministry of health and family welfare issued CSIR-IIIM a licence to grow the plant on one acre of land in the northern state of Jammu & Kashmir for medical research.

In July this year, northern state Uttarakhand’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government also issued a licence for commercial cultivation of hemp—a type of cannabis cultivated for industrial use.

Uttar Pradesh, another northern state governed by the BJP, prime minister Narendra Modi’s party, will soon issue a research licence for cultivation of the plant, according to Rajender Pal Singh, director general of the economic offences wing of the state’s police department.

In February, Patanjali Ayurved, the consumer goods giant founded by India’s popular yoga guru Baba Ramdev, too, had said it is studying cannabis.

But medical marijuana is still far from being a reality. Vishwakarma said lab tests and approvals for a clinical trial could take up to two years, and, according to Badwe, the trial itself could span another six years.

Legalisation of recreational use is even farther away. “We need to prove beyond doubt that cannabis is beneficial. For that, we need to take the medical route,” said Pal. “Once you show its benefits in the medical sector in front of policy-makers, they will be open to it. Then you move to the industrial sector and others.”