Cannabis is one of the most widely used controlled substances in the world and almost all cultures have had some sort of long-term relationship with it. In these cultures, cannabis was hailed for its medicinal and entheogenic properties and later on also found to have applications in meeting daily needs of the individuals and societies, such as food, shelter, and clothing.
However, in the 20th century this plant garnered notoriety from propaganda associated with the infamous war on drugs, which changed the way people saw and see this plant to this day.
Let us take a quick look at the reality of the health effects of cannabis and then dive into the media and public perception about cannabis while considering the specific case of Kerala.
Reality of health effects of cannabis
The stigma associated with cannabis is often due to its physical and psychological effects. Some of the most common physical effects include dry mouth, red eyes, and increased heart rate. There is also a possibility of physical harm from the inhalation of combustion by-products such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and tar when smoking is considered as an option to intake cannabis.
However, the harm associated with smoking cannabis alone is often lower than smoking cannabis with tobacco or smoking tobacco alone. Medical research suggests that the vaporization of cannabis could be an effective and healthy alternative to smoking.
The psychological effects of cannabis include euphoria, altered states of consciousness, ideas of reference, and meta-cognitive thinking as well as impairments in psychomotor control, body movement, reflexes, decision making, and ability to concentrate. Existing research urges that people with a history of mental illnesses should refrain from cannabis use as it might trigger psychotic episodes, paranoia, hallucinations, mood swings, and delusions, etc.
The extent of effects on the body is dependent on the dosage as well as the duration of usage. Long-term users often develop tolerance to lower doses and prolonged recreational use is not advisable from a medical perspective. Moreover, the cannabis sold in black markets possesses larger health risks than the effects of the plant itself. Consumption of adulterated cannabis might trigger catastrophic reactions if someone uses it for therapeutic applications.
Cannabis offers an abundance of therapeutic applications that are well documented in ancient texts as well as scientific literature. The existing scientific research backs the claims made by traditional medical systems such as Ayurveda and Unani, etc. The cannabis species is highly versatile in terms of the number of strains or varieties with varying combinations of phytocannabinoids and terpenes.
This is particularly significant from a medical perspective as the desired therapeutic potential is dependent on the orchestration effect provided by these plant compounds. In fact, the countries that have regulated cannabis have set up protocols and procedures to ensure that the patients are consuming appropriate strains in a controlled environment by adopting safer methods such as vaporization and oral ingestion.
It is true that cannabis is one of the most popular recreational substances in the world after tobacco and alcohol. The Delphi chart on popular drugs suggests that cannabis is less addictive and harmful than that of regulated substances such as alcohol and tobacco. If used wisely, alcohol has great potential as a social lubricant, extraction agent, disinfectant, sustainable biofuel, and many more. The same concept can be applied to cannabis; but, the socio-economic potentials of this plant species are exponentially larger.
Media perception towards cannabis in Kerala
The media portrayal of cannabis has evolved throughout the years. The national media has incorporated numerous discussions about cannabis. These discussions often involved a diverse range of personnel including anti and pro-cannabis activists, healthcare professionals, entrepreneurs, politicians, and government officials. There were numerous articles and editorials by politicians and influential personalities about the possibilities of cannabis to revive the economy and contribute to sustainable development.
The media in Kerala, however, has seldom exhibited any interest in elucidating the socio-economic and environmental applications of cannabis.
The prevailing scenario is still concurrent with ‘the news minute’ article dating to 2014 that depicted the anti-cannabis stance of the popular media in the state. The media often portrayed cannabis as a substance of abuse that is detrimental to society.
Nevertheless, there were few media mentions of cannabis being a medicinal plant when India voted in the UN to reclassify cannabis as a crop that has therapeutic applications. One noteworthy article was published by the magazine of a major media house. This article entitled “masthishkkathile marijuanathottam’ i.e., ‘the marijuana garden in the brain’ provided a clear overview of the endocannabinoid system and its implications on therapeutics, wellness, and spirituality.
The media houses need to expand their research on cannabis as a resource capable of meeting multiple sustainable development goals and assuring wealth and prosperity for all. Besides, proper media intervention is essential for spreading awareness towards safely regulating cannabis and reaping its socio-economic, wellness, and environmental capabilities to revive our economy, environment, and society at large.
Public perception towards cannabis in Kerala
The media representations have a tremendous impact on the perspectives and prejudices of the public towards cannabis. The continual exposure to news that projected cannabis as a substance of abuse has resulted in a bad reputation for cannabis. The public perception towards cannabis could be observed in the comment sections of YouTube and social media platforms when news about cannabis-related arrests are published.
The comment sections of social media posts as well as YouTube channels of media platforms often contain highly polarised information about cannabis. People are not afraid to use derogatory sentences to shame the people involved even by pointing out aspects such as gender, religion, ethnicity, and appeal.
However, some commentators support the involved parties by adding slogans and phrases popular amongst cannabis users. Recently, in these comment sections there also emerged a small outcry of people urging to regulate cannabis. They often point out how the United States catalyzed global prohibition and now reverted back to legalization for medical, industrial, and even recreational purposes.
The public perspectives can also be obtained by conducting surveys on varying sample sizes, such as the one conducted on a sampled population of 50+ people to understand their perspectives towards cannabis. The following charts provide an overview of survey responses.
The majority of the participants belonged to 25-40 years of age with an educational background of graduation or post-graduation. Most of them perceived cannabis as a recreational substance similar to tobacco or alcohol and suggested it to be less harmful than both.
However, most of the respondents were unaware of the potential of cannabis to contribute to economic growth and meet multiple of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Nevertheless, it is interesting that the majority of participants acknowledged the therapeutic and industrial as well as ethnobotanical implications of cannabis and even favored its legalization.
Even though it cannot be considered as the opinion of all the people in Kerala, it could certainly be viewed as the opinion of a minority of educated millennials in the state. It is noteworthy that the observations from the above mentioned survey is similer to an unpublished national level survey conducted by Dr Khagesh Gautham as part of his ongoing research. This implies that the trend in Kerala is somewhat concurrent with the national trend as well.
The perceived harm associated with cannabis is mostly the aftermath of the prohibition rather than the plant itself. The lack of awareness associated with this plant and its potential is a key impediment to its acceptance in society. The awareness and research towards efficient use of cannabis for therapeutic, spiritual, and industrial purposes will be vital to leverage this plant species to revive the economy, environment, and society at large.
Let me conclude with a quote from American astronomer, planetary scientist and science communicator; Dr. Carl Sagan.
“The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a herb which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity, and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”