Marijuana addiction needs to be treated with a multi-pronged approach, writes NANDHINI SUNDAR

It was the same smell that wafted out of the locked doors, the smell of marijuana smoke. Shalini helplessly closed her eyes. Her teenaged son, Sridhar, was again smoking, soon after returning from the counsellor. Weed, as marijuana is commonly referred to, is touted to be far less harmful than tobacco. Many medical benefits are attributed to it besides it being historically accepted in Indian society in the form of bhang. While there are claims aplenty about society being deprived of its medicinal uses because of it being declared illegal, not many are aware of the harmful effects of marijuana such as reducing sperm count, reducing sexual potency, causing testicular cancer, accentuating psychosomatic behaviour amongst others. The fact that cannabis use also results in A-motivation syndrome where there is inclination to do nothing, the user typically living in a haze, is again not widely discussed.

Shalini says: “Prior to being introduced to marijuana, Sridhar was extremely enthusiastic about his football, music, sketching and reading besides being a top performer academically. Weed use changed all that. While his passion for music continues, his grades plummeted, he rarely plays and he is unable to get himself to read even fiction, leave alone academic books.”

As for Sridhar, he would rather debate vehemently on the benefits of smoking a ‘joint’ than give up the habit. Claiming that it is not addictive and is not as harmful as tobacco or alcohol, he says, “it has the same addictive effect as caffeine but has far more benefits in terms of widening your perception of life. It calms you and makes you a better person.”

Contradicting such beneficial claims, Dr. Appaya, former Head of Psychiatry, St. John’s Medical College Hospital says, “the medical benefits listed have not been substantiated. The only benefit cannabis does yield medically is in the treatment of glaucoma. On the contrary, the harmful effects of prolonged use are plenty, starting from psychosis, anxiety, depression.”

Insisting that cannabis is habit forming, he further adds, “Those who are prone to mental illness are at high risk as it aggravates their condition. While users have no evident physical withdrawal features, they become restless, lose interest and the capacity to apply their intelligence comes down significantly. Cannabis also causes pulmonary problems, cardiac conditions in the form of increased heart rate. Impact on lungs is as bad as nicotine if not more, as the tar content is high in cannabis.”

Stating that a cannabis user would be content just lying on the grass and gazing at the sky without any motivation to something interesting or worthwhile, he says, the fact that tobacco and alcohol is legal does not warrant making cannabis legal even if India has a history of social sanction to it. “This is especially so as cannabis users are more likely to move to harder drugs.” According to him, 35 to 40 per cent of heavy cannabis users have moved at some point to harder drugs, justifying it being termed as the ‘gateway drug’.

Voicing similar views is Dr. Vivek Benegal, Professor of Psychiatry, De-addiction Centre, NIMHANS. “While banning anything does tend to create a parallel market, the statement that it is not harmful is not true. There is enough evidence that cannabis can be dangerous, especially for early adolescents and those who have a genetic trait towards schizophrenia, compounding the risk of developing psychosis.”

Stating that the 9 tetra hydro cannabinol chemical which gives the high in cannabis can cause damage to memory, reduce sexual potency, change behaviour patterns with some going into dependence and losing interest in life, he says, “the extensive presence of tar in cannabis makes it immensely more carcinogenic than smoking cigarettes. Besides, cannabis gives the illusion of increasing brain functioning initially while it is in fact to the contrary.”

According to him, children who have difficulty in sustaining their attention are at higher risk of being drawn towards cannabis. “These children are more impulsive, cannot learn from mistakes and tend to repeat in the hope of seeing a difference.” Such children need to be specifically recognised and treated in accordance. Here, schools, paediatricians and parents play a major role, he adds.

“What we need is de-criminalisation of cannabis, so that users are not penalised but treated right to be weaned. Public awareness about it being an illness is needed, with intervention coming before habit is formed. This intervention should not be in the form of sermon but a positive diversion.”

Certainly, awareness of its harmful effects and habit forming nature is vitally needed but so also is its de-criminalisation so as to reach out to those who have already fallen under its spell as well as to potential candidates before they reach out for it.

(The names of individuals have been changed to protect privacy)