YATIN VARMA

The legalization of cannabis has again become topical with the recent stand of Dr Navin Ramgoolam, leader of the Mauritius Labour Party on the issue. It meets those of Xavier Duval, leader of the opposition and of the PMSD and Alan Ganoo, leader of the Mouvement Patriotique. Coincidentally or perhaps resolutely, all three advocate a soft policy on the use of cannabis. This is in sharp contrast with the stand taken by the Prime Minister. For reasons best known to himself, the leader of the MMM has until now preferred to hide under the blanket of silence. Locally, we first heard about the legalization of cannabis in the late 1990s from Rama Valayden, leader of the now defunct Mouvement Républicain. The latter had in few aspects been ahead of his time. Unfortunately, at that moment, the issue was considered a taboo and shunned, rightly or wrongly, by a majority of the population. Fortunately, things have since evolved. Even the Director of Public Prosecutions, Satyajit Boolell SC, coming back from an earlier stand, mentioned in his September 2015 office newsletter that he remains open to suggestions. However, the reasons behind the decision whether or not to legalize the use of cannabis should be more medical and legal rather than political.

The main psychoactive ingredient present in the cannabis plant is Delta-9-Tetradrocannabinol (THC). Other main naturally occurring cannabinoids with similar chemical structures to THC are cannabinol (CBN) and cannabidiol (CBD). The 2018 report of the 40th meeting of the World Health Organization Expert Committee on Drug Dependence stated that there are no reported cases of abuse or dependence relating to use of pure CBD. It further stated that no public health problems have been associated with CBD use and that in clinical trials; pure CBD product has demonstrated effectiveness for treating some forms of epilepsy. Nevertheless, according to the same report when used acutely cannabis causes dizziness and impairment of motor control and cognitive function. It further states that regular cannabis use is associated with increased risk of mental health disorders but most of the adverse effects associated with cannabis result from chronic use. Despite its reputation as being non addictive, another established risk factor for the use of recreational cannabis is dependence.

For a longtime, CBD and THC have been prescribed to treat nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, spasms, muscle stiffness and chronic pain. CBD can also treat glaucoma and epilepsy. In the United States, epidiolex i.e purified natural CBD proved to treat two atypical forms of childhood epilepsy. Medical use of cannabis was legalized in the United Kingdom on 01 November, 2018. The change to the law came after the Home Secretary listened to concerns from parents of children with conditions such as severe epilepsy namely after the cases of two epileptic children who benefitted from using cannabis brought increased public attention to the issue. The children (Billy Caldwell, 12 and Alfie Dingley, 6) both experienced significant improvement in their conditions after they began using cannabis.

The South African case of Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development & Ors v Prince (2018) ZACC 30 held that section 4(b) of its Drugs Trafficking Act 1992 which made it a criminal offence for an adult to have in his possession cannabis in private for his personal consumption was inconsistent with the right to privacy as entrenched in section 14 of its Constitution. In Ravin v State of Alaska, it was held that citizens of the State of Alaska have a basic right to privacy in their homes under Alaska’s Constitution. This right to privacy would encompass the possession and ingestion of substances such as marijuana in a purely personal, non-commercial context in the home unless the State can meet its substantial burden and show that proscription of possession of marijuana in the home is supportable by achievement of a legitimate state interest. 

Legal access to dried cannabis was first allowed in Canada in 1999 for medical and scientific purposes and in public interest. In a 2000 Ontario Court of Appeal decision, the right of an individual to possess cannabis for medical purposes was confirmed, leading the Canadian federal Government to permit approved persons to either grow cannabis themselves, have a designated person grow it for them or purchase products directly through Health Canada. In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada held that restricting legal access only to dried forms of cannabis violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In response, licensed producers were allowed to produce and sell cannabis oil and fresh cannabis buds and leaves. In 2016, in response to another decision of the Federal Court of Canada, individuals who had been authorized by their healthcare practitioner to access cannabis for medical purposes could produce a limited amount of cannabis for their own medical purposes. On 17 October, 2018, Canada became the second country after Uruguay where cannabis was made legal for recreational and medicinal purposes. Persons aged 18 or older can possess up to 30 grams of dried cannabis in public. Adults are also allowed to make cannabis-infused food and drinks and each household is allowed to grow up to four cannabis plants. Canadians travelling within the country are allowed to carry up to 30 grams of cannabis.

Cannabis in India has been used since time immemorial. Attempts at criminalizing cannabis in British India were unsuccessfully made in 1838, 1871 and 1877. In Indian society, common terms for cannabis preparations include charas (resin), ganja (flower) and bhang (seeds and leaves). Bhang has been mentioned in several Indian texts and is closely associated with the Holi and Maha Shivratree festivals. In November 2015, the Indian state of Uttarakhand legalized the cultivation of cannabis for industrial purposes. Consequently, the Patanjali Ayurved of Swami Ramdev in Haridwar is researching the benefits of cannabis and its extracts for use in ayurvedic medicine. So far more than 40 countries including Australia, United Kingdom, Spain, several states in the United States of America, Switzerland, Netherlands and Germany have legalized medical cannabis. Lesotho was the first African country to legalize the cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purposes and in December 2018, Thailand became the first South Asian country to approve medicinal cannabis.

Amid the scourge of synthetic drugs and the imminent threat it represents to society coupled with the current international trend, we cannot but accept the legalization of the use of cannabis. Undoubtedly, one will agree that the effects of cannabis are far less devastating than those of synthetic drugs which have irreversible consequences. Therefore, the decision should rather be whether to restrict the use of cannabis for medical use or allow it for both medical and recreational purposes.