On the International Day Against Drug Abuse, here is a story of hope

It seemed really harmless but promised to be extremely exciting and was cheap compared to other drugs or even alcohol. As for availability, if you have the right sources, it could even be plucked fresh out of a farm and handed over for a small fee.

We are talking about marijuana, commonly known as weed among its users. The plant that gives you a high, offers you the illusion of sharpening your intellect while getting you silently hooked on to it.

For those who are genetically vulnerable, this exhilarating puff could prove to be life changing. Cannabis can lead to the development of psychosis and ultimately schizophrenia which is irreversible in those who have a genetic trait towards the same.

Marijuana has a mind-altering chemical tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, which causes psychological effects on the user, altering the behaviour by binding to receptors on nerve cells which then respond with a change in activity.

The THC brings about euphoria, heightened sensory perception, altered sense of time, increased appetite which later subsides leading to sleepiness and depression, occasionally anxiety, fear, distrust and even panic depending on the individual.

Marijuana is also known to impair a person’s ability to form new memories and to shift focus to new tasks because of THC disrupting coordination and balance. This disruption is also found to affect performance of complicated tasks, athletics and even driving. Intense users experience acute psychosis including hallucinations, delusions along with a loss of sense of personal identity.

Contrary to the myth that it is less carcinogenic as compared to tobacco, marijuana smoke has a similar toxic mixture of gases and particulates that harm the lungs. In fact marijuana is considered to have greater potential to promote cancer of the lungs as it is considered to contain 70 per cent more carcinogens than tobacco smoke.

Dr Vivek Benegal, Professor of Psychiatry, De-addiction Centre, NIMHANS, says, “Enough evidence prevails on the dangers of cannabis especially for early adolescents and those who have a genetic trait towards schizophrenia, compounding their risk of developing psychosis.” According to him, cannabis gives the illusion of increasing brain functioning initially while working to the contrary.

Unfortunately users of marijuana, both heavy and casual, prefer to harbour the illusion that it is harmless and not addictive. Shivanand, a heavy marijuana user, who ultimately had to check into a rehabilitation centre to address not just his addiction but also his schizophrenic state that was the result of his habit, finds it hard to come to grips with his mental condition.

“The delusive state of mind is so intense that he refuses to acknowledge his addiction. The marijuana use and addiction was so severe that he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and is under medication now”, says his mother Priya, who battled with his addiction and violence for over four years before finding a suitable rehabilitation centre for her son.

Currently, Shivanand is in a rehabilitation centre, VVM De-addiction and Research Centre based in Kolkata, belonging to the NGO, The Art of Living Foundation, which uses yoga, meditation combined with counselling, with the inmates put on a tight schedule through the day to help address addiction. Medication is administered only in situations that warrant, on a tapering basis.

Tapan Banerjee, who coordinates the activities of the centre, says, “The centre is chiefly staffed by past addicts who came here and recovered and who now want to make a difference. Having earlier experienced addiction, they are more sensitive and understanding of the problems of inmates.”

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