Desperate times seek desperate remedies. The world is witnessing another surge in COVID cases, and governments everywhere have become desperate seeking an immediate solution. Vaccines are in short supply and their efficacy is still not determined. Experimentation is going on around the world for a cure. As a preventive measure, fumigation is being routinely done with strong chemicals, but to no avail. All nations are grappling for some miracle solution for this pandemic. Hence we need to seek new ways to fight this crisis.
Ritual of burning medicinal plants to produce 'purifying' smoke is common in several religions. Hinduism has Havan and Islam has Bukhur. Usually what is burnt is a mixture of aromatic medicinal herbs typically prescribed by each religion. This ritual is done to cleanse the atmosphere and ensure purity by getting rid of any germs. For example, Camphor is widely used in Hindu ceremonies and is an antiviral agent. It is also used as a fumigant to kill viruses during pandemic situations. Camphor has a long history of use for health and hygiene, and, has been documented since ancient times across nations. During the Black Death plague, it was used as a fumigant. Unlike many other fumigants, camphor smoke does not irritate the eyes or throat and therefore it is very useful for home and office fumigation. It is safe as a fumigant for the elderly, for expecting mothers and children also. Camphor reportedly kills bacteria, microbes, and viruses very effectively. Similarly, Loban or Sambrani, botanical name Styrax Benzoin is very effective against bacteria and viruses. This compound is used in several places of worship throughout the Indian sub continent as a purifier.
Agarwood is another natural disinfectant. Also called as Oud, Vedic sciences have advocated its myriad health benefits long before the Arabs became obsessed over its unique scent. Agar is considered to be the king of all resins. Agarwood dust and chips are antibacterial and burning them drives away mosquitoes, due to the presence of phenol which is present in the oil. Agarbattis were originally made of pure agarwood, now an extinct practice, due to the prohibitive cost of Agar. Burning them was not just a religious ritual, but also a way to purify the atmosphere.
Cannabis or Marijuana or Ganja, has all the potential to be an atmospheric cleansing agent. The major active principle in all cannabis products is Delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. It is also known by its International Non-Proprietary Name (INN) as Dronabinol. Cannabis is among the most commonly used controlled substances worldwide. An estimated 192.2 million people use cannabis worldwide, roughly corresponding to 3.9% of the world’s population. Unfortunately, Cannabis consumption became a stigma during the Opium Wars between British-India and China. Subsequently, the American political leadership spearheaded a campaign to make Cannabis cultivation, distribution and consumption illegal. The Americans played the role of Pied Piper and all nations dutifully obeyed the American prohibitions. It is only very recently that Israel, South Korea and Canada have eased restrictions on Cannabis and opened up research into the myriad chemical properties of Cannabis. Nascent research indicates that drugs containing Cannabis may be helpful in treating certain rare forms of epilepsy, nausea and vomiting associated with cancer chemotherapy, loss of appetite and weight loss associated with HIV/AIDS. In addition, some evidence suggests modest benefits of Cannabis for chronic pain and multiple sclerosis symptoms. For decades, prohibition and arcane regulations have prevented basic research on Cannabis. Recently, researchers from the University of Nebraska and the Texas Biomedical Research Institute first flagged the possibility in a peer reviewed article in Brain, Behaviour, and Immunity, that an active chemical ingredient Cannabinoids (CBD) in Cannabis may be helpful in fighting the cytokine storms in Covid-19 affected patients. Cytokines are proteins in the body that play an important role in our immune response - increasing inflammation in reaction to infections. This is crucial in fighting off infections, but sometimes in severe infections the body goes too far, and releases too many cytokines into the blood too quickly - this is a cytokine storm, and it can be really dangerous, causing high fever, too much inflammation (redness and swelling), severe fatigue, nausea, difficulty in breathing and in some cases death due to organ failure. Researchers are particularly interested in CBD because it has the ability to reduce these inflammation causing cytokines, and thus potentially, end the cytokine storms.
As new research is shedding light on the many beneficial properties of Cannabis,there is a growing trend to liberalize policies governing cannabis possession and use with over 20 countries and most U.S. states legalizing cannabis use for medicinal purposes within the last decade. Over eleven U.S. states, have legalized Cannabis for recreational use by adults. In 2018, Canada became the first Group of 7 (G7) countries and the second in the world, after Uruguay in 2013, to formally legalize Cannabis for recreational use.
Researchers from the University of Alberta in Canada have identified nearly 536 chemicals in Cannabis smoke.
Out of those, about 110 are known to be toxic and are known as Cannabinoids. Experts still aren’t sure what each cannabinoid does, but they have a pretty good understanding about two of them, known as CBD and Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).CBD is a psychoactive cannabinoid, yet it’s non-intoxicating and non-euphoric, meaning it won’t get a person “high.” It’s often used to help reduce inflammation and pain. It may also ease nausea, migraine, seizures, and anxiety. THC is the main psychoactive compound in cannabis and is responsible for the “high” that most people associate with cannabis. Research is underway in many laboratories around the world to understand the benefits of Cannabis.
However, Ayurveda discovered the potential of Cannabis known as Bhanga in Sanskrit, a long time back. It is mentioned in many of the ancient texts on Ayurveda like the Charaka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita, and Shargandhara Samhita. It is described as a toxic substance by Sushruta and the description of the toxicity of Cannabis is elaborated upon by many of the Rasa Shastras (the texts on medicinal preparations made from Metals, Minerals and Toxic plants). The Ananda Kanda has a whole chapter dedicated to the herb, its toxicity, the procedure for purification, cultivation, preparation and use. This chapter describes 9 successive stages of Cannabis toxicity. However, the use of Cannabis in mainstream Ayurvedic practice today is virtually non-existent, due to issues of legality.
It is generally believed that Cannabis can disinfect and keep bacteria and viruses away. If this can be validated by research, then, hazardous chemicals which are now being used for fumigation can be replaced by Cannabis smoke.
While the chemical composition of tobacco smoke has been thoroughly investigated, there are few reports of the chemical composition of marijuana smoke. Chemicals such as nitrogen oxides, hydrogen cyanide, and aromatic amines have been found in Cannabis smoke. Because of very limited research on this topic, it is not possible to say with certainty, about the efficacy of Cannabis smoke on Corona Virus. However, many research labs and Universities have started exploring this interesting route. The Government of India also needs to galvanize the over 800 Universities in the country, to do research on Cannabis smoke. Our Universities hardly do any research, except adding to their name an appendage “research”. This is just to receive some grants and get a few points in their NAAC grading. To be among the best universities in the world, our universities should be compelled to do original research. Exploring the hidden potential of Cannabis could be a great topic of research for many universities, including Central Universities. Amazing research is underway in Israel on Medical Cannabis. Cannabis use has been permitted in Israel since the early 1990s for cancer patients and those with pain-related illnesses such as Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease, other chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. In preliminary research done in Israel some evidence does indicate that several high-CBD extracts can inhibit viral cell entry. Clinical trials for Cannabidiol Treatment of Severe and Critical COVID-19 Pulmonary Infection, is underway at Rabin Medical Center (RMC) in Israel as part of the global effort to fight COVID-19.
Israeli researchers from The Medical Cannabis Research and Innovation Center at Haifa’s Rambam Health Care Campus are leading research that suggests the effects of medical cannabis could be used as a method for treating some symptoms of seriously ill COVID-19 patients. At this Center, for the first time in Israel, a laboratory experiment has been undertaken to explore the effect of various types of cannabinoids on the white blood cells of COVID-19 patients. Israelis proudly state that the challenge and goal is to identify the specific strain or cannabinoids combination, which can treat the specific COVID-19 related pattern of inflammation. A biobank database of COVID-19 patients at Rambam, Israel,will help facilitate research into the possible therapeutic effects of cannabis in battling some symptoms of the deadly virus.
Israel has given its approval for the export of medical cannabis clearing the way for the country to become a leader in a sector set to bring in as much as an estimated $1 billion in revenue per year. There are already more than 10 medical cannabis farms and five factories in Israel. Israel has eight cannabis growing companies and dozens of cannabis startups and companies. Some 60,000 Israelis use medical cannabis as a treatment, with an estimated 25 tons of medical cannabis consumed per year for this purpose.
Similarly, researchers at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, have identified certain kinds of high CBD strains that could help treat people infected with the virus or even prevent it from developing in the first place by managing to reduce virus receptors.
The Medical Cannabis market is all set to achieve a fantastic growth rate of 34.0% by 2023, according to market researchers. Cannabis has officially become a complementary drug in many countries of the world. If cannabis succeeds as a complementary treatment for Covid-19 it will be an achievement for the industry. But why is India lagging behind in this path breaking field? Huge seizures of Cannabis are happening in different parts of the country on a daily basis by almost every enforcement agency. These are all simply destroyed by burning. Why not identify and hand them over to select universities to conduct research, like what Israel is doing? We have abundant clandestine Cannabis cultivation in the country, apart from huge quantities that are trafficked into the country, from neighbouring countries. India has the potential to become a pioneer in the field of Medical Cannabis, if only the government opens its eyes and sees the pathbreaking research already underway in many countries.
(The writer is Director, Indian Institute of Infrastructure Construction, Kollam and former Director General, National Academy of Customs, Indirect Taxes & Narcotics and School of Multi-Disciplinary School of Economic Intelligence. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)