Cliff Vint was diagnosed with urinary bladder cancer in 2016. His oncologists said the illness was terminal, predicting that the 75-year-old would see no more than a hundred days. In search of hope, he went online and found the non-profit Great Legalisation Movement, which helped him procure cannabis oil. Over a year later, Vint is alive, and on the mend.

A thin, wiry man, Vint sits surrounded by the blue walls of his house near the Bilikal forest, 75 kilometres south of Bengaluru, with only one message for the government: “Allow it [cannabis] to be grown by anybody who has cancer. They cannot do this [procure cannabis oil] on their own. The government must see that this treatment is provided to patients who need it.”

Vint is one of thousands of patients to whom Great Legalisation Movement has recommended and delivered cannabis oil, says Viki Vaurora. A resident of Bengaluru, Vaurora founded the group in November 2014. He took the initiative after meeting Leela, a 37-year-old stage-four stomach cancer patient, at his sister’s ayurvedic clinic in Nuggehalli, Karnataka. “I told my sister, why not use bhang to help her as it [cannabis, which is used to make bhang] is one of the first plants you learn about in ayurveda, but she too had a mental block, and Leela was also reluctant to try when she heard weed,” said Varoura of this first encounter. Leela went through several rounds of chemotherapy, without much success. As she grew sicker, her husband, remembering Vaurora’s advice, telephoned the young man.

“Within three days of taking the oil, she was more comfortable – she wasn’t vomiting constantly and she could eat,” said Vaurora. “Within three months she finished her oil and called back and asked for more.”

He asked Leela to undergo medical tests to see whether the cannabis oil treatment was working. “She got her scans: Leela had been declared cancer-free, they couldn’t find tumours anywhere,” said Vaurora. Though it is unclear whether the results were a result of the chemotherapy Leela had been getting, or the cannabis oil, or luck, or simply a coincidence, the episode was Vaurora’s “wake-up call” to the healing properties of the marijuana plant, says the 27-year-old pro-marijuana activist.

Shortly thereafter, the Great Legalisation Movement was formed.

Growing movement

The core GLM group began with a handful of people. First through YouTube and Facebook, and later through a dedicated website, they propagated literature on marijuana and medical news. Attention and members followed soon after.

GLM has been recruiting ambassadors in states across India. The ambassadors, who volunteer through the non-profit’s website, are responsible for the area where they live. “Ambassadors are basically in charge of coordinating GLM members in their area,” said Mantra, an actor and producer who owns the Mumbai-based Mantramugdh Productions.

Mantra is GLM’s Mumbai ambassador. “If there’s a protest to be organised, or if there is educational material to distribute or share with others who have asked, or even something as simple as talking about its [cannabis’] benefits among friends or spheres of influence, that is what ambassadors do,” he said.

Photo credit: The Great Legalisation Movement India/Facebook.
Photo credit: The Great Legalisation Movement India/Facebook.

Vaurora, who worked as a journalist in Bengaluru before founding GLM, funds the group’s research and events. Others who work for the movement, such as the ambassadors, do so without any remuneration, personally bearing the costs of printing educational material on the benefits of marijuana.

GLM’s Himachal Pradesh ambassador Haneesh Katnavar says meeting Vaurora and hearing about the group’s work convinced him to become part of the movement. “I used to smoke, okay, but that was some time ago,” said Katnavar, who is also the group’s content writer and social media manager. “Growing up in Himachal Pradesh, the problem with criminalisation of cannabis is obvious. I know people – both young and old – in jail for providing or selling a plant that literally grows everywhere around them. And many Himachali people do think of it [the cannabis plant] as having healing properties.”

With over 27,000 followers on Facebook and more than 46,000 views on YouTube, GLM’s main focus for now appears to be spreading awareness about the benefits of industrially-grown marijuana. In December 2017, GLM organised the first all-India march to legalise marijuana. A month later, the Delhi chapter organised a protest at the Central Park in Connaught Place. “If the government can allow sale of tobacco and alcohol, why not marijuana…,” said Utsav Thapliyal, GLM’s Delhi ambassador, as he addressed the gathering.

Photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters
Photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters

The movement has received support from renowned cardiologist, former Vice Chancellor of Manipal University and Padma Shri recipient Dr BM Hedge. Vaurora has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office explaining the benefits of “legalising cannabis and hemp for medical use and large-scale industrial cultivation”. A reply dated January 5 says the prime minister’s office forwarded the information to the Drugs Controller General. Though he hasn’t heard of any decision taken on his letter thus far, Vaurora is optimistic. “I think it’s highly likely that in the next month or two, something will open for…not just for GLM but hope for many patients in this country.”

While medical marijuana remains the movement’s “first priority”, says Vaurora, people do often ask about the uses of cannabis for recreation. “We are open-minded about its recreational uses as well, but the need of the hour is that of the suffering patients,” he said. GLM says it doesn’t take any money from the people to whom it provides cannabis oil for medical use. “It’s never been about the money,” Vaurora said. “All our medications are for free. In some instances, the people who have benefited choose to donate and help out others in treatment.”

Global acceptance

India has a 2,000-year-old history with cannabis. The first known mention of marijuana can be found in the Atharva Veda, in which it is referred to as one the five most sacred plants on Earth – a source of happiness or a liberator. In Hinduism, the consumption of bhang, an edible preparation with cannabis leaves, is central to festivals such as Holi. It is so commonly used in in Ayurveda that it has been called the “penicillin of Ayurvedic medicine”. Cannabis was used in the Unani system of medicine practiced by Muslims in medieval India, as a possible cure for diseases of the nervous system and as an anti-spasmodic and anti-convulsive. Sikh warriors too were known to use bhang during battles to numb their sense of pain. The Nihang sect in Sikhism still consumes the narcotic as part of their sacred rituals.

Photo credit: Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP
Photo credit: Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP

The ban on using and selling marijuana came into force in November 1985, with the Parliament passing the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. The law was meant to fulfill India’s obligations under the US-backed international treaty for Single Convention on Narcotics, which was drafted in 1961.

Over the last two years, cannabis has caught attention worldwide as the medical community has come to accept its healing properties. In November 2017, the World Health Organisation released a report in which an expert committee on drug dependence found that cannabidiol “demonstrated as an effective treatment of epilepsy…and may be a useful treatment for a number of other medical conditions”.

In June, the United Kingdom renewed its research into cannabis’ potential as a restorative drug after confiscating the oil from a mother who was using it to help her 12-year-old epileptic son. The same month, the US Federal Drug Administration approved its first cannabis-based drug for epilepsy called Epidiolex. A US-based research firm the Brightfield Group has estimated the global market for legalised marijuana to be worth $7.7 billion.

Cannabis has also been in the news in India after the country issued its first government licence to grow medical marijuana in August 2017. In July, Uttarakhand became the first Indian state to allow industrial growth of the cannabis plant. Several public figures, including Maneka Gandhi and Shashi Tharoor, have spoken out about legalising medical marijuana.

Photo credit: The Great Legalisation Movement India/Facebook.
Photo credit: The Great Legalisation Movement India/Facebook.

Research has found that cannabis oil contains two main chemicals that act on specific receptors in the brain known as cannabinoid or CB1 receptors: delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol. While THC can have a psychoactive reaction in the brain, most cannabis oils contain a small amount of the chemical – so a patient does not get high – and a high amount of cannabidiol. For people suffering from a terminal illness or on whom traditional medicines do not work, cannabis oil has been found to be a more effective treatment.

Medical view

While GLM and many movements like it across the world tout the healing properties of marijuana, Indian doctors are constrained from using the same due to lack of government approval. “It [marijuana] is used as a pain reliever for cancer patients,” said Dr Shyam Aggarwal, an oncologist and senior consultant at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Delhi. “It is also used in some psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and anxiety. A lot of pre-clinical studies do support the idea that cannabis oil has anti-cancer properties. The findings of such studies are however limited to the lab and pre-clinical mice trial models. There have not yet been any trials to test the efficacy of marijuana in treating cancer in human beings, though the pre-clinical data that exists…is sufficient to explore this with proper clinical trials.”

Till such a time as the United States’ FDA or a similar government body approves clinical trial on human beings, using cannabis to treat cancer and other terminal diseases remains untested, unauthorised, and potentially illegal. GLM is deeply aware that its work could land members into trouble with the law. “Whatever we do is illegal right now…procuring the Indica strain, making the oil, and giving it to patients who want to use it – but helping them [the patients] is more important to us,” said Vaurora.

In October 2016, Dharam Vir Gandhi, a Member of Parliament from Patiala, moved a private member’s bill in Lok Sabha to allow people to use “non-lethal, conventional drugs such as marijuana and opium husk”. Gandhi’s bill, listed as an A-category bill, is set to come up for discussion in the winter session this year.

Gandhi believes that the drug crisis in Punjab is due to “the banning of common man substances [that] has led to an emergency, a humanitarian crisis as people turned to synthesised drugs instead”. The law must allow for “demarcations, common man substances should be kept separate from hard drugs or chemicals,” he said. The bill aims to curb the black market worth “thousands of crores, which is controlled by the mafia that consists politicians, corrupt policemen, and affluent strata of society which wanted to go rich very quickly”.

Photo credit: The Great Legalisation Movement India/Facebook.
Photo credit: The Great Legalisation Movement India/Facebook.

His bill has the support of several political leaders. “I have talked to TMC [Trinamool Congress], some Akali leaders, to BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] leaders, and even Shiv Sena leaders garnering support for the cause of legalising marijuana.” Maneka Gandhi and Tathagathy Satpathy, a Biju Janta Dal MP, are actively supporting his cause, he says.

Though Gandhi and GLM have never met, each is aware of the other’s existence. Katnavar says that the movement has plans to meet the parliamentarian before the winter session. At present, though, they are focused on the field because “cannabis season is about to finish,” says Katnavar, who is also working on getting GLM a government licence to grow cannabis. For now, as Vaurora admits, the group is obtaining the plant illegally. “Everyone, including Commissioners of Police, know and don’t pull us up because we are using it for medical treatment,” he added.

The group has expanded into healing centres, one of which is being set up in the Western Ghats. “I’m reluctant to disclose the exact location till it is set up,” said Vaurora. The centres teach patients with cancer and other illnesses how to treat themselves using cannabis oil. It also encourages them to follow GLM’s 10-step protocol that “is about basic lifestyle changes, removing emotional blocks…[and] changing the way they think and breathe,” said Vaurora.

“From different parts of India the call is rising to legalise natural substances that are part of our culture,” said Gandhi.