High hopes

September 13, 2020

Pakistan plans to begin research on cannabis following the federal cabinet’s approval, aiming to secure 4 percent of the global market


ith an eye to securing four percent share in the $25 billion global cannabidiol (CBD) market, Pakistan plans to begin research on cannabis following federal cabinet’s approval, on September 1, to launch the project under government control.

Federal Minister for Science and Technology, Fawad Chaudhry informed the media that the cannabis plants that Pakistan plans to grow would contain legal level THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), say around or below 0.3 percent. At higher levels, THC is intoxicating and illegal in much of the world.

As of August 2020, in addition to 33 US states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam now legally allow marijuana for personal medical use.US states that allow medical marijuana include Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia. The first US state to legalise the medical use of marijuana was California in 1996. Out of these states or districts, recreational use of marijuana by adults has been legal in 14 states.

The botanical name of this particular plant is Cannabis sativa. It is a flowering plant that has two main variations, marijuana and the less potent hemp. Marijuana contains the chemical delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which alters the mind when smoked, eaten, drank, or taken in any form. Cannabis has over 200 other common or street names, including weed, pot, herb, dope, grass, ganja, 420, chronic, Mary Jane, gangster, boom, skunk etc. In our part of the world, it is commonly called bhang.

A derivative of cannabis, CBD compound plays an important role in medicinal therapy. In ancient China, cannabis was used for the treatment of some ailments as early as 2,800 BC. A 600 BC era manuscript found in Iran reveals that ancient Iranians had knowledge about the characteristics of cannabis. From Iran, its use spread in India where according to the Vedic tradition, cannabis was used to prepare a ritual drink which was an essential ritual of Hindu religious rites.

One also finds its mention in the Persian and Arabic literature, which indicates that from India and Iran, knowledge about cannabis spread to the Arabian Peninsula and from there to the African continent and later on the world over. In many countries, cannabis was used as an industrial raw material. Curtain cloth prepared from its fibre was popular amongst the elite, while some countries used it for preparing ropes.

Mughal emperor Akbar (1560-1605) is said to have enquired from his courtiers if they were aware of any drug that was so powerful that if a rider consumed it whilst he had one foot in the saddle, he would be unable to adjust his other foot and ride. Next day, one of his top courtiers brought hashish (hash). Emperor Akbar liked hash, but in view of its low price value declared it to be not fit for the royalty’s use.

Hashish is the dark brown resin that is collected from the tops of cannabis sativa. It is at least five times stronger than raw marijuana. Since it is stronger, the effect on the user is more intense, and the possibility of side effects is also greater.

As a result of Emperor Akbar’s observation, a bias developed against cannabis and its derivatives in the Indian subcontinent, where cannabis and its derivatives, both charas and hashish, started being treated as “poor man’s dope”. Those persons who abused cannabis (bhang) were looked down upon in the society and were often disdainfully called bhangis. By and large, people would refrain from entering into wedlock in families where any member indulged in the consumption of bhang.

One would support, in principle, the government-owned programme for the industrial and medicinal use of cannabis as it could ultimately lead to the creation of thousands of new jobs.

Following the Soviet revolution, the British colonial government in India encouraged the ruler of Chitral to procure good quality seeds of cannabis from the neighbouring Central Asian States for growing the plant in his domain and then selling the produce to the British opium and cannabis monopoly. It may be mentioned here that the British colonial government in India derived some 19 percent of its revenues from the trade in opium and cannabis that it sold to the Indian users, through government licensed vends, and also exported abroad, in particular to China. These vends, licensed for the sale of opium and bhang locally, were auctioned through open bids. The Government of Pakistan abolished the vend system on February 9, 1979, caring little for the revenue loss.

Recent studies and developments about the industrial and the therapeutic use of cannabis have prompted China to set-up a dedicated cannabis research department and also cultivate hemp over 40,000 acres. Currently, Canada is also cultivating this plant on 100,000 acres.

Cannabis grows wild in Pakistan by the side of rivers, lakes, and nullahs as well as under tree-shade and on land tracts not put under plough for 3 – 4 months. Its natural growth is so widespread that the rural folks in the Punjab often say that if their earthen ovens are not used for cooking for 3 – 4 months consecutively, there is a likelihood that hemp plants may sprout there as well.

Marijuana’s strength and effect on the user depend on the potency of THC. The highest concentrations of THC are found in marijuana’s dried flowers or buds. When marijuana smoke is inhaled, THC rapidly passes from lungs into the bloodstream and is carried to the brain and other organs throughout the body. THC acts on specific receptors in the brain, (called cannabinoid receptors), starting off a chain of cellular reactions that finally lead to euphoria, or “high” that users experience. Furthermore, THC keeps on accumulating in the fatty tissues of the body, especially in the brain, and thus cause considerable damage to its users. There are many other chemicals found in marijuana, many of which may adversely affect health.

Side effects of marijuana use are variable from person to person, depending upon strength and quantity of the stuff used and the user’s exposure to THC. The short-term effects of marijuana use include: increased heart rate, low blood pressure, muscle relaxation, slowed digestion, dizziness, distorted perception (sights, sounds, time, touch), difficulty in thinking, memory, and problem solving, loss of coordination and motor skills, agitation, anxiety, confusion, panic, paranoia, increased appetite, dry mouth and dry eyes. For chronic users, the impact on memory and learning can last for days or weeks after its acute effects wear off. Research shows that drivers have slower reaction times, impaired judgment, and problems responding to signals and sounds if driving while under the influence of THC.

Furthermore, marijuana smoke contains cancer-causing hydrocarbons, often in greater quantities than found in cigarette smoke. Babies born to mothers, who used marijuana during pregnancy, are usually smaller. Dieticians recommend that marijuana use be discontinued during breastfeeding because THC is excreted in the breast milk.

So long as marijuana cultivation remains under the control of the federal government, it is fine. But, after preliminary research regarding medicinal research of cannabis, when the government expands the programme to bring in the private sector for wider production, unscrupulous elements may try to exploit the situation for personal gains. This calls for a cautious approach and creation of a foolproof system. However, one would support, in principle, the government-owned programme for the industrial and medicinal use of cannabis as it could ultimately lead to the creation of thousands of new jobs, give a boost to the economy and, above all, provide essential medicines for the ailing.

The writer is the author of the first Urdu language book on the hazards of drug abuse. He also served in the Pakistan Narcotics Control Board for over five years in the late 1970s

High hopes: Pakistan plans to begin research on cannabis